Inconsistencies Between Practices, Brown Act Guidelines Highlighted During LBCCD Training

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Ruben Duran instructing LBCCD Board on Brown Act. Photos by Jason Ruiz. 

The Long Beach Community College District (LBCCD) Board of Trustees took some extra time before last night’s regular meeting for a refresher course on the Ralph M. Brown Act, a law that upholds the public’s right to participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. The training session revealed further inconsistencies between the board's practices and established Brown Act guidelines.

The two hour long presentation, which appeared to be about as enjoyable as traffic school for some members of the board, was given by Ruben Duran, a partner with the law firm Best, Best & Krieger. It spanned multiple topics, including what kind of information needs to be shared with the public, what can be discussed in closed session and general “best practices” for preventing a possible violation of the act. 

Board President Jeff Kellogg denounced any notion that the Brown Act training session was tied to allegations made earlier this year that the board violated the Brown Act by discussing Superintendent-President Eloy Oakley’s compensation and contract extension in closed session. Instead, Kellogg said the training was a direct result of the board’s vote to approve such a session during its March 24 meeting.

Nevertheless, Duran started by stating that having such a session was a great way to keep any entity out of the headlines for violating the act.

“Today is a great headline, that the board is taking a couple of hours to educate itself and the public about what the law requires,” Duran said.

Duran added that while it is unusual for an entity to call for such a training session, he has presided over similar requests in the past. Those elected to such positions are given training under AB1234, a bill passed in 2005 that requires all local agencies providing compensation to provide ethics training for its employees.

“It’s not unheard of but it’s not common because board members receive training under AB1234, which is ethics training that includes a Brown Act component,” Duran said. “But, certainly if they’re feeling that they could use some further details or more of an opportunity to explore issues as they did in there, it’s been known to happen.”

What was supposed to serve as an informational session slowly turned into a showcase for the dysfunction within the board, with Trustee Sunny Zia repeatedly questioning the board’s policies and other members disputing her claims.

At one point, Duran, trying to deescalate some of the tension, playfully referred to himself as a referee, asking if he “needed to go put his black and white striped shirt on.”

Zia, who for months has pushed for more transparency from the board, pressed Duran on what documents needed to be included in agendas posted for the board’s regular meetings. She stated that on multiple occasions, including last night, she had sent correspondences to other board members and asked them to be included in the minutes so as to not eat up valuable time by having to revisit them during the meeting.

“We have this information that’s available but how is the public supposed to know that we have it in the absence of it being provided on the website?” Zia asked. “What if the public didn’t attend the meeting? If we don’t put it on the website, how are we supposed to provide it to the public?”

The board’s secretary Jackie Hann, who oversees the input of information for the online agenda, said that all of Zia’s correspondences were available to the public, they just need to request them from the school. She also pointed to the board’s policy of non-verbatim minutes as reasoning for not complying with Zia’s requests.

“I’m not comfortable going back into Boarddocs and adding more agenda item detail,” Hann said. “Then [Zia] asked for it to be included in the minutes. Our policy is not verbatim minutes, and I know that it’s available to the public. I totally know that and if anyone wants a copy of the spreadsheet, the answers to the questions […] the public is welcome to it. But we do not go back and add it to these documents as part of the background information.”

Boarddocs is the software the district uses to post its agenda online.

Duran noted that the law states that if a document is sent to a majority of the board before the meeting it must also be made available to the public, either by printing it out and attaching it to the physical agenda packet at the meeting or by placing it as an attachment on the board’s online agenda.

However, he said that the law did allow leeway for boards to set certain policies, like how their minutes are recorded.

Zia’s request to include her roughly 17 questions on the board’s discussion on the budget, a document she said was distributed to the rest of the board the day before the meeting, was printed out and made available for the public hours later during the regularly-scheduled meeting. However, her correspondence had yet to be added to the online agenda at the time of publication.

The item of what is permissible to be discussed in closed session also lead to a protracted discussion, mostly led by Zia, who asked questions that seemingly mirrored the allegations currently swirling over the board. This drew the ire of Kellogg, who took it upon himself to point this out.

“You [Duran] are giving a general presentation on the Brown Act and I’m listening to [Zia's] questions knowing that we have items…," he trailed off. "Please do not connect the dots and say that 'Ruben said this this and this therefore…'"

Kellogg’s comment came after Zia asked questions pertaining to what would constitute a reason for holding closed session discussions on potential litigation—the board was set to discuss an identical item pertaining to a letter sent to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office alleging a misuse of public funds—and whether or not employee compensation could be discussed behind closed doors.

“The general rule is that it’s impermissible, with one exception,” Duran said. “If you’re going to adjust an employee’s salary downward as a result of taking action to discipline him or demote him, then the discussion can take part in closed session in that context. But you can’t take closed session to set salary for any employees.”

Duran’s response conflicted with comments made by the board’s legal counsel during the March 10 meeting, in which the board voted in closed session to approve a raise and extension of Oakley’s contract.

A complaint alleging the board violated the Brown Act was filed with the DA’s office in April by Long Beach resident Chris Prevatt, along with another complaint a few weeks later alleging the misuse of public funds that the board discussed in closed session last night.

The presentation outlined the reasons for which an item could be categorized for closed session, including an outright verbal threat of litigation from someone delivering public comment or a letter received by the board or one of its members notifying them of impending litigation.

However, Prevatt’s letter sent to the board earlier this month detailing his belief that the board had misused public funds in the form of an unapproved raise given to Oakley in 2014 did not mention the filing of a lawsuit. Prevatt, who was in attendance at the meeting last night, confirmed that he had no interest in pursuing a lawsuit.

Duran described the Brown Act as “tricky”, as it's a constant balancing act between the public’s right to know and the board’s ability to operate efficiently.

He said that agencies do slip up but he believes that elected officials are generally interested in doing the right thing. He conceded that the local agencies are only required to meet the minimum requirements of the Brown Act, and that often times their ability to go above and beyond that is based on resources and staff size.

Ultimately though, Duran said it comes down to what the people they represent demand of them.

“How vocal is your public going to be in demanding above and beyond?” Duran remarked on the depth of information provided in agendas. “But above and beyond is tough sometimes because of the resources or time that’s available.” 

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