In a move that hit a nerve across campus and the Pasadena community Wednesday, the Board of Trustees tabled a vote on a measure that would have effectively silenced themselves from openly speaking with the media and their constituencies.
The measure called bylaw 2771, written by trustee Anthony Fellow, stated that its purpose was to “protect the integrity of the institution,” and therefore have the board act as “one body, one voice.”
The bylaw would mean that all board members would adhere to protocols such as making the board president the official spokesperson for the board of trustees, requiring any board members to inform the president of any information requested by the media, referring all media inquiries to the board president for “controversial” topics and informing the president about any media contact regarding “non-controversial” issues before responding.
Trustee James Osterling was a vocal opponent of the measure stating that it has dangerous ramifications for the first amendment, and that he was unsure what the deficiency was for the current bylaw 2715 which already covers media inquiries. Osterling was joined in his skepticism by Trustees Ross Selvidge and John Martin.
According to board agenda documents, “The bylaws were compared to model bylaws provided by the Community College League of California and reviewed by the Board of Trustees subcommittee on Accreditation/Board Policy Review.”
Upon review, there do not appear to be any model bylaws from the Community College League of California (CCLC). The only relevant section from the CCLC Trustee Handbook states, “The board has legal power only as a unit: trustees represent the board and have no authority as individuals. Therefore, a board member’s public comments should represent board decisions and policies, even if the trustee did not vote for a board decision.”
Even if the board wanted to add bylaws that reflect the trustee handbook recommendation, it’s already covered. PCC already has Board bylaw 2715 which includes the following:
“7. Understanding that the Board can legally function only as a group, each member should exercise appropriate care to speak as a member of the board and accurately represent board policy to the community. Personal opinions should be identified as such.”
There is also a question about the legality of the bylaw. Peter Scheer, Executive Director of the California First Amendment Coalition told the Courier by phone that this would boil down to a first amendment issue.
“If the measure passes with a majority and the members who vote in favor want to censor themselves they have that right,” Scheer said.
“However, if the measure passes and some members of that body don’t wish to abide by the bylaws and attempt to speak out to the media anyway … if they face any negative actions up to and including censure, removal from committees or removal from the board, they have a first amendment right of action, and could get a court order to override the governing body and prevent them from further enforcement of the policy.”
Courier Editor-In-Chief John Orona spoke to Trustee Selvidge before the meeting and was told that failure to abide by this measure, should it pass, would result in sanctions for the member.
Osterling told the Courier regarding the measure, “I think the fundamental assumption under which the premise is based on is flawed, therefore the conclusion is flawed,” he said. “The Superintendent reports to the Board of Trustees, not the other way around. So the idea of [of checking in with the president before commenting] defies the organizational chart.”
During the hour-long discussion on the measure before it was tabled, there was an attempt by Trustee John Martin to present amendments to the measure which he felt would help protect the first amendment rights of individuals while also allowing the board to speak as one body.
“Our goal here is to render to the district that which is the districts and render to the individuals that which is the individuals, and I made an effort to help make that distinction,” Martin said.
Trustee Berlinda Brown and Osterling debated back and forth on concerns over accreditation. Brown cited previous instances in which the ACCJC stated that the board was not acting as one body, and that that was one of the reasons for the current probation, while Osterling called the accreditation reasoning a “red herring.”
“Just because the accreditation commission feels that we should speak with one voice and stifle dissent does not mean that they are correct,” Osterling said. “I’m not going to take instruction from an institution that in my layperson’s opinion is unconstitutional. This is an extremely important matter and it’s worth some discussion and some thought, I think it’s worth a review by our legal counsel. I don’t think we were presented a sufficient amount of discussion before it was placed for a vote.”
Before making a motion to table the vote, Trustee Linda Wah commented that, “I think there has been some misinformation that has been given out to the press and it’s a credit of all the trustees that were able to engage openly and civilly in discourse regarding this issue so we can speak to each other … and not try to have others fight our battles for us by trying to appeal to others come in to try and fight those battles.”
President Vurdien concurred with Wah, commenting, “There is always a negative impact to the college when we have statements like you saw in the press today about what was said about this item on the agenda,” referring to trustee Osterling’s interview with Pasadena Star-News regarding the agenda item on Tuesday.
After an hour of discussion and criticisms, Brown noted that they did not have the four votes needed to pass the measure and the board voted to table it until the next meeting.