DA says Rio board may have broken open-meetings law
By Cheri Carlson
June 10, 2011
The Rio School District board appears to have broken state law that prohibits trustees from discussing or taking action on issues outside of a meeting, the District Attorney's Office said this week.http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif
Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Schwartz said his office received a complaint that the board held a serial meeting to hire its legal counsel. Such an action would violate the state's open-meetings law — called the Brown Act.
But in another letter this week, the DA's Office dismissed a list of other allegations against the Rio board. The allegations, which included charges of bribery and conflict of interest, were brought by two board members against the three-member board majority.
The violation appears to have taken place before the Rio board's Feb. 10 closed-session meeting, according to a letter Schwartz sent to trustees this week.
Attorney Mark Bresee appeared to have acted as an intermediary by getting a consensus from three trustees that he advise them about Superintendent Sherianne Cotterell's termination, the letter states. Bresee has since been hired as the board's general counsel.
"The District Attorney has the authority to bring a civil lawsuit to stop or prevent threatened violations of the Brown Act," Schwartz wrote. He asked the district to respond to the concerns, so the DA's Office can determine if it needs to bring such an action.
Board President Eleanor Torres said Friday that Bresee is expected to provide additional information to the DA's Office soon. She expects that information will clear up any concerns.
However, if it is determined that a violation occurred, the board will make sure the issue is properly addressed and remedied, Torres said.
Bresee declined to comment while the matter is still under review.
Under the Brown Act, a majority of a board members cannot discuss or take action on board business outside of a meeting. That's the case if trustees speak directly to each other or through an intermediary, the DA's Office said.
In this case, Torres had contacted Bresee to discuss issues regarding Cotterell and asked him to come to the Feb. 10 meeting, which he did. Bresee was not the board's attorney at the time, but another lawyer at his firm worked for the district on other issues and referred Torres to him.
Bresee appears to have then confirmed with Trustees Henrietta Macias and Ramon Rodriguez that they also wanted him at the Feb. 10 meeting to discuss the superintendent's contract, officials said.
The Rio board did not take action at a public meeting to hire Bresee as its general counsel until the end of March.
At a March 2 special meeting, Macias, Torres and Rodriguez voted to terminate Cotterell's contract without cause.
Trustee Tim Blaylock voted against the move. And Trustee Mike Barber, who also supported Cotterell, was unable to attend the meeting because of a prior commitment.
Blaylock and Barber brought their concerns to the DA's Office.
In the separate letter to trustees this week, Schwartz addressed eight other allegations the two trustees had brought forward, saying that "no violations have been established that would warrant action by the District Attorney's Office."
On Friday, Torres said that none of the allegations were warranted. "They (Blaylock and Barber) are wasting so much time and effort on a whole lot of different agencies' parts," she said.
Blaylock, who said he wants to make sure the board governs properly, said he appreciated that the DA's Office looked into the concerns. "I think he (Schwartz) took his time. He investigated, and he did a thorough job," Blaylock said.
Blaylock, however, said he continues to have concerns. Other cases could be reopened should more information become available, he said.
Torres said she hopes the board will be able to move forward and work together. "It just comes to a point when it has to stop," she said. "Let's go forward."
"It's quite clear that there are differing opinions of members of the board," Schwartz said Friday.
The DA's Office isn't taking any position on issues such as what trustees should vote for or vote against, who they should hire or fire, he said. "Our concern is that the process be done correctly, and the right for the public to participate be honored."
Here is a case in which Mark Bresee gave advice to Chula Vista Elementary School District.