It’s been more than a year since Superintendent-President Vurdien replaced the former president Rocha and a cloud of legal trouble settled over campus, yet it seems PCC still has more trouble in the forecast, not only following the law, but also being transparent to its students and faculty.
At last night’s Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting, the board tabled a motion to vote on board bylaw 2771, which would allow the board to act as “one body, one voice,” in regards to media relations. After a large amount of pushback from the media as well as Trustees Osterling, Martin and Selvidge, the board didn’t have enough votes for the motion to pass.
The bylaw would make the board president the sole spokesperson for the BOT, require all board members to inform the board president of any info requested by media, and would require members to inform the president before they can respond to any “non-controversial” issues.
It’s understandable that the board doesn’t want to say anything that would paint PCC in a negative light. Perhaps, rather than passing what amounts to a gag order on themselves, the board and administration should take care to ensure they don’t operate in ways that paint the school in a negative light in the first place.
Restricting access to the media at this level, which includes student media on campus, not only makes it harder for the students, faculty and the constituents in the community to get substantial news and information, but also makes it appear that there is something to hide. This further erodes the very fragile trust that is still being built between our campus community and the BOT.
The agenda noted that the bylaws were based on model bylaws from the
Community College League of California (CCLC), which states in its trustee handbook: “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.”
PCC already has board bylaw 2715 which includes exactly that language. This makes bylaw 2771 practically redundant, which casts further doubt on the intentions of the board.
Trustee Osterling, the most vocal opponent of the measure, cited the stifling of the First Amendment as the main reason for opposing the measure. Osterling’s opposition was the bright spot in the meeting where this agenda item seemed to appear with no warning, no explanation and no one who could present any evidence as to where it came from.
Osterling himself noted that the agenda item, which supposedly came from a Board Policy Review subcommittee, could not be found on the subcommittee agenda items nor as part of any meeting minutes.
It reads very shady that an agenda item with such overarching ramifications for free speech and freedom of the press would appear out of nowhere, with no one able to offer an explanation of where it came from.
In January, the College Council, a committee created by the Board of Trustees and therefore subject to the Brown Act, voted to “unbrown” themselves. This was done under the guise of making meetings more inclusive and convenient; however this meant that meeting agendas could change, meetings could be hidden, and minutes could be withheld.
Far from being inclusive, it’s clear the effect has been to leave students who wish to exercise their right to participate in the governance in the dark.
We understand the decision to relieve themselves of the Brown Act was convenient to the College Council — as ignoring law usually is — but the College Council has not just a legal obligation to abide by it, but an ethical one as campus leaders who care about the students and school they govern.
After we reported on this violation last semester, the school responded by saying they will continue to post minutes and meeting schedules. That hasn’t happened with any consistency.
The Courier previously reported that attorney Terry Francke for Californians Aware stated in regards to the council dropping the Brown Act, “‘Even if it may not be an operating committee of the Board of Trustees, the College Coordinating Council is a standing committee that holds monthly meetings created by a legislative body,’”he told the Courier.
“‘The fact that the college board created this body is enough by itself to make it subject to the Brown Act.’ Francke added that even if the intent was not to advise the Board directly but only the president, the Court of Appeal has held in a comparable case (Frazer v. Dixon Unified School District) that that distinction makes no difference.”
Californians Aware successfully sued PCC for Brown Act violations in 2014 and won after a judge nullified former president Mark Rocha’s severance package.
Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C. concurred with Francke’s assessment in an email to the Courier. “The fact that the Council was created by an act of the trustees and not just by the president as a personal advisory body is very compelling evidence that the Council must comply with the Brown Act. The Brown Act applies not only to “legislative” bodies like college trustees, but also to any bodies who have been delegated authority by a legislative body,” LoMonte said.
LoMonte continued by saying that if the trustees created the Council with the mission of formulating policy for presentation to the trustees, then that’s a governmental body covered by the Brown Act. He found it “amazing” that PCC would be going so far out of its way to stretch the open-meetings law to exclude the public, after the college has been burned in recent history for its excessive secrecy, noting the ruling of Rocha’s severance package.
“Even if the president’s attorneys are telling him that he might have an argument for excluding the public from these meetings, why would he? Why would anyone try to hard to maintain secrecy on the campus of a state-owned, taxpayer-supported institution? The only logical explanation is that the college is doing things it does not believe the public would consider legitimate if the decisions were discussed in public,” LoMonte said.
LoMonte hit the nail on the head. It’s hard to believe the words of an administration who continues to act in a manner that limits transparency and access to information.
Even if the board follows the Brown Act to the writ, the fact that they deny their necessity to adhere to it sends a clear message that they believe they are above public transparency and threatens our accreditation status, as well as eroding any good reputation they have in gaining the trust of its students and community.