A workshop at a special Tehachapi Unified School District board meeting covered Brown Act laws, documents, rights of the public and rules of open and closed sessions, all in response to Kern County grand jury findings in June.
“The best advice is to not talk to each other outside meetings,” Grant Herndon, general counsel with Schools Legal Service from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, told the board members.
He added, “The model is to come talk about board business here at the meeting.”
The board has a variety of topics to work on, according to the grand jury report.
The grand jury found a possible conflict of interest, board disharmony, an improper voucher payout to a board family member, lack of challengers to run to for elected board positions, many emails that appear to be a serial meeting and the need for accurate minutes.
“The Schools Legal Service suggested we do more work on the Brown Act and due to the grand jury report,” board President Leonard Evansic said. He added, “It is a constraint all board members have to operate under for a good reason.”
Herndon presented a variety of information at the meeting.
Meetings and Brown Act
The Brown Act offers the public the opportunity to be present while a district or government entity is discussing business and see the outcome of actions taken.
A meeting includes “any congregation of a majority of the members of a legislative body at the same time and place to hear, discuss or deliberate upon any item that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body or local agency to which it pertains,” according to government code 54952.2.
Board members need to refrain from speaking with each other about district subjects at any place other than board meetings. This includes conferences open to the public, or at social or ceremonial gatherings.
Conversations through email, voicemail, text message or other forms of social media should not be used as it can jeopardize the Brown Act by letting other board members know where they stand on issues and trying to persuade another member to decide on a matter before the meeting.
Herndon said that even using a cell phone and texting during board meetings could lead someone to think that members are communicating with each other, so it should not be done.
Agenda packets must be posted at a location that is accessible to the public. Regular meetings require a 72-hour notice and a special meeting a 24-hour notice.
Required elements on the packet include the date, time and location of the meeting, providing an opportunity for public comment, listing special teleconference requirements, citing specific Brown Act provisions for litigation, stating disability access and the location for 72-hour rule documents.
Posting of agendas
New posting requirements staring Jan. 1, 2019 state that the agenda must be posted on the district’s website through direct links from the homepage and electronically searchable through commonly used internet search applications.
Agendas are posted currently at the district office, 300 S. Robinson St., or at Golden Hills Elementary School, 20215 Park Road. They are also electronically sent to other school staff to post at their sites if the agenda is sent out before 4:30 p.m. and 72 hours before a meeting.
Board members may vote at board meetings for items on the agenda if there is a quorum. They may not use a secret ballot, abstentions are allowed and if a board member has a conflict, they need to declare a conflict and step out of the room.
“You have a duty to vote on everything that comes before you, except if you have a conflict of interest,” Herndon said.
The Brown Act states that items not posted on the agenda including matters raised in public comments should not be discussed or acted on at that time.There are some exceptions: a brief response to public comment, questions for clarification, a report of activities, directing staff to report back, or taking action to direct staff to place the item on a future agenda, said Herndon.
Boards must either announce or provide a written report of action taken after closed sessions.
Board members, staff and some members of the public the business pertains to can be present in closed session. Matters usually involve pending litigation, employee appointment, evaluation of performance, purchase or lease of real estate, labor negotiations or student matters.
Access to documents
Agendas and other writing in connection with a matter in an open public meeting are disclosable public records and must be available without delay.
Public information requests can also be made for records that are distributed to the board majority within 72 hours prior to a meeting. The records must also be made available at a public location and copies can also be requested for a fee.
An option is also available for the district to post agenda items and documents online, which the district does on its website at teh.k12.ca.us.
Documents at open sessions must be made available at or after the meeting and in alternative formats upon request for people with disabilities. A person who makes a written request within 24 hours of the agenda posting or has a standing request is entitled to copies if present when the closed session ends.
Closed session documents are not available to the public, but may become disclosable in the future such as contract settlement agreements.
The public has the right to be heard and speak speak publicly and to petition the government, as is everyone’s First Amendment right. A member of the public can also formally request at the meeting for an item to be put on a future agenda.
In some instances, the public can be removed from the room if they are creating a disturbance, but media can stay, unless the media is causing the disturbance, said Herndon.
It is not required for the public to sign in as a condition of attending a meeting, but speaker cards are needed to address concerns, issues or matters to be put on the agenda, added Herndon.