President Eloy Oakley at the March 10 Board of Trustees meeting. Photo: Jason Ruiz.
Whether or not the Long Beach Community College District (LBCCD) Board of Trustees violated the Ralph M. Brown Act (Brown Act) in the process of extending President-Superintendent Eloy Oakley’s contract last month is now up to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, as allegations against the board received by the DA's public integrity division this week are currently under review.
The claims were filed with the DA’s office by Chris Prevatt, the former publisher of a political news blog in Orange County and resident of Long Beach, who has an extensive background in issues concerning the Brown Act—a law passed in 1953 by Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, which protects the public’s right to attend and participate in local legislative bodies' meetings—due to his previous position as a staff supporter to the county’s HIV Planning Council.
In his letter to the DA’s office, Prevatt outlined what he calls “blatant” violations of the Brown Act that ultimately led to the passage of Oakley’s contract extension at the March 10 meeting without the contract being made available for public review or discussion prior to the Board’s vote.
A representative from the DA’s office confirmed Thursday that the office has received the complaint, and it has been placed under review, but opted not to comment further on the case. Generally speaking, if the allegations are found to have merit, the next step would be to send a Brown Act letter to the agency in question—in this case, the LBCCD.
Oakley's contract was hastily extended by the Board March 10 just weeks after reports surfaced that he was entertaining an offer to becoming the chancellor of the Coast Community College District (CCCD) before pulling out, citing a desire to stay in Long Beach. A call placed to a member of the CCCD Board of Trustees confirmed that Oakley indeed interviewed for the position but the terms of a potential contract were not discussed during that interview. He opted to extend his contract with the LBCCD shortly after.
Prevatt accuses the Board of boosting Oakley’s pensionable compensation by over $22,000 by augmenting the contract to include now-disallowed CalSTRS retirement fund contributions by the college on behalf of Oakley, into his base-pay, and noted that a provision for over $17,000 in vehicle mileage reimbursements was also added to the pensionable portion of his pay, when those funds were previously not considered pensionable.
While the public was aware that an extension was being discussed, the amended version of the contract—requested by the Post March 9 and received March 13 via email—wasn’t made available to the public until after the March 10 meeting.
“Basically what these guys have done is pervert their interpretation of the Brown Act to allow them to do stuff in secret,” Prevatt said. “My guess is this is a practice they’ve followed for decades and nobody has called them on it.”
The LBCCD board has, in fact, been accused publicly of Brown Act violations in the recent past, most notably by student trustee Jason Troia, who accused the board in 2013 of holding secret deliberations concerning the discontinuation of certain trade programs at the college.
In a series of emails, Prevatt requested the same document March 23 and was told it wasn’t available electronically and that he’d have to pick it up in person and pay for the printing fees. It wasn’t until after he filed a separate request April 1 under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and reminded college administrators of the fact that the document, which legally should have been provided electronically prior to the vote via the school’s BoardDocs site, wasn’t available electronically, was further proof that they were in violation of the Brown Act. The college emailed him the document April 2.
While Prevatt’s allegations only cover the past few years, the systematic nature of his allegations sent to the DA focused on the non-agendized pay raises made to the superintendent-president since 2013. When Oakley signed that contract, his base salary was $264,348 and was raised to over $320,000 in March due in part to shifting of “fringe benefits” to be part of his base pay.
However, Prevatt said that between the signing of the 2013 contract and the March extension, only one increase in pay was publicly documented, and that was in June 2014. Board President Jeff Kellogg corroborated this lone raise in comments made while discussing the extension at the March 10 meeting. The 2% raise made effective January 2015 brought his base salary to $269,634, but when the extension was signed Oakley's base salary was reported as $280,452, leaving an increase of over $10,000 unexplained.
“With this level of evidence it’s pretty much a slam dunk that they violated the Brown Act," Prevatt said. “You can’t get around they voted in secret on a contract, and that voids it.”
Prevatt said the issue isn’t with the raises or repositioning of benefits to be part of Oakley's base salary, it’s that it was done behind closed doors and without public discussion. If the Board did violate the Brown Act, Oakley’s extension could be voided by the DA.
“Everything they did, technically, they can do,” Prevatt said. “They didn’t really do anything illegal in any of the stuff that they did. They can say ‘instead of mileage, we’re going to give you an up in pay’. But you can’t do it in secret, that’s where they screwed up.”
His request for the DA to investigate the Board came after a letter he mailed to the Board demanding they cease and desist from and cure and correct their violations of the Brown Act was shot down by the Board’s legal counsel.
The Board’s lawyer, Spencer Covert, wrote that Prevatt’s letter, which called for the voiding of Oakley’s contract and for the Board to undergo annual Brown Act training, among other things, was based on unfounded assumptions. He said that the Board was not in violation of the Brown Act because it didn’t act on approving the contract in closed session at the February meeting, but agreed to place it on the agenda for the next month’s meeting.
The letter defended the actions taken by the Board during the March 10 meeting, saying that while a closed session item regarding a performance evaluation and contract term extension was discussed, the open session agenda item detailed the redistribution of mileage and CalSTRS retirement funds into the base salary, adding that it was discussed publicly before being voted on. Covert did not address the claim that salary terms of the contract were discussed in closed session without public notice, which would trigger a Brown Act violation.
“Consequently, the Board of Trustees will not cure or correct any of its actions or agenda leading up to the final approval of the Superintendent-President's contract extension and salary restructure that was discussed and approved at the regular meeting of March 10, 2015.” Covert’s letter reads. “Your seven requests listed on page three of your correspondence are respectfully denied.”
During the meeting in question, both Covert and Trustee Douglas Otto voiced opposition to discussing the terms of the contract publicly after Trustee Sunny Zia, the only trustee to vote against the extension, expressed concerns that not opening the extension up to public scrutiny before entering closed session would rob the public of its legally-protected right to have its voice heard.
Covert stated that the contract isn’t a public works contract and thus wasn’t subject to public review before the vote. Otto was more blunt.
“The general public is not party to those negotiations,” Otto said. “Once the contract is completed and adopted then there are plenty of opportunities to comment, but it’s not a free-for-all.”
Prevatt labeled their comments as “damning,” adding that the fact they may have alluded to negotiations about to take place in closed session will serve as compelling proof to uphold his claims.
Covert, whose firm represents both the LBCCD and Long Beach Unified School District, was the subject of an an August 2013 Orange County Register article which detailed that on at least four occasions, clients that he represented had rulings of Brown Act Violations upheld against them, the most recent being in 2013.
While under his legal guidance in 1999, the South Orange County Community College District was ordered to tape its closed session meetings for two years due a judge’s determination that the district had consistently flouted the Brown Act. Two years prior to that, he was framed as the chief architect of the termination of a superintendent during closed session that led to a judge ruling that the Chino Valley Unified School District also violated the law as the public was given no prior notice of the firing and buyout of the superintendent’s contract.
A representative from the college did not comment on whether they were aware that contracts were supposed to be posted in advance of a vote or whether the district was aware of Covert’s history of being party to Brown Act violations when it brought him on to provide counsel to the Board.
Citing his extensive background monitoring these kinds of violations, Prevatt said he is 100 percent convinced that once the DA reviews his allegations it will lead to an investigation. If found in violation, Oakley’s contract would be nullified and the board would need to restart the process publicly, which would surely elicit a long line of dissent from the public considering the level of disagreement expressed by faculty and community members at the March 10 meeting.
Other possible repercussions would depend on if the Board is found in violation and how long the DA believes it has allowed these kinds of practices to persist. But even then, Prevatt said he’s doubtful it will turn into any criminal charges, even though it wouldn't be unprecedented if the DA did pursue that angle. Instead, he said they would most likely be subjected to taping their closed session discussions like the South OC district in 1999, also represented by Covert.
“If they’ve been doing this for a long time, the DA may look at this differently,” Prevatt said. “There are ramifications for how far they go back. If they go back too far, then you’ll end up going after people who are now council members.”