An open forum hosted by the Long Beach Community College District Board of Trustees Wednesday night will review a policy measure intended to codify communication practices aimed at more thoroughly engaging the community it serves.
However, the document originally slated for a vote of approval at the board's December meeting has been tweaked in light of public pushback, alleging that some of its provisions stifled faculty’s first amendment right to freedom of speech.
The document, which has been a topic of discussion since April when the board-appointed Ad Hoc Committee first presented recommendations regarding its communication policies, outlined how and when board members could or should communicate with the public—and the media—and sought to restrict members' use of social media to engage constituents or to voice opinions on upcoming agenda items.
The policy also outlined a determination not to live-stream its meetings due to a mixture of low demand and the high cost of broadcasting the meetings live, as well as the development of a monthly newsletter regarding college- and board-related news and the introduction of LBCC-specific email addresses for the trustees who are currently using private addresses to communicate with the public.
In a document posted to its meeting site, the board’s Ad Hoc Committee clarified why some of the changes were made prior to Wednesday’s open forum.
“The committee reexamined the document to make appropriate changes to further clarify the purpose of the items, and amending language to better reflect the committee’s intentions,” the document read. “The intent of this document is to encourage more free and open communication, further the Board’s transparency goals, while establishing new guidelines and frameworks for how the communication takes place.”
Among the topics that members of the public—and one trustee, Sunny Zia—took issue with in the policy presented at the December 8 meeting was a provision stating that the board’s president, Trustee Doug Otto, would serve as the official spokesperson to the media in order to maintain a consistent voice for the board, and that whenever contacted by a member of the media, a board member was expected to notify Superintendent President Eloy Oakley, as well as Otto, that they had been contacted by the media.
“We agree on a lot of things, but there are some disagreements that we have and that’s where I take exception,” Zia said. “Each individual is really representative of the people, we’re not representative of each other. We’re not there to go along, to get along. It’s a job and we must uphold that.”
Other items included requiring trustees to submit questions on agenda items to Oakley at least 48 hours in advance of meetings or risk Oakley being able to decline answering them during meetings—the reasoning being that having staff better-prepared to answer questions would speed up the proceedings of meetings.
The public also took issue with a requirement that all possible on-campus constituent meetings be coordinated through Oakley’s office and a social media clause that prohibited the “broadcasting of intention to vote” on agenda items led members of the community to speak against the policy, as they believed it infringed not only on the trustees’ ability to communicate with their constituents, but also might create a chilling effect, given that Oakley’s office would be made aware of meetings of individual trustees and the community to voice concerns about the board.
“To have a policy that limits an elected official’s ability to communicate with the community she represents is undemocratic,” said Diane Phillips, a community minister and former LBCC student. “Social media is the way our society communicates, especially the younger generation and it’s a really easy way to communicate with an elected official. Why is the board trying to limit trustees’ communication with the community? Without knowing how the community feels about an issue, how can a trustee represent her constituents?”
The “she” Phillips was referring to was Zia, whom Phillips and others who spoke that night believe at least some of the proposed policy—co-authored by Trustee Irma Archuleta and Otto—was crafted to reel in, given Zia’s outspokenness about the board and her push for greater transparency.
“I think they’re trying to stifle Trustee Zia from interacting with the public,” said Carolyn Byrnes, a resident in Zia’s district and a vocal critic of the policy. “None of the others do.”
Brynes also took issue with the scheduling of the December meeting, at a time when most students were in the middle of finals, which she believed helped keep the turnout low. She fears that Wednesday’s public forum will garner the same lack of attendance, considering that the school in large part is not in session, with the Spring Semester not starting until February 8.
Late Friday, revisions made to the document were uploaded to the school’s Boarddocs site, where the board posts its agenda and meeting details. A spokesman for the school said in an email that the document had been amended in response to some of the comments and concerns voiced by the public.
Otto responded to questions posed to him by a reporter from the Post with excerpts from the Ad Hoc committee’s published rational for the changes. The document stated that portions previously interpreted to be mandates by the public had been re-worded to read as suggestions and "best practices," with some sections being omitted completely.
While the policy remained fundamentally intact, changes to wording regarding the media, submittal of trustee questions prior to meetings, requirements to coordinate with Oakley’s office prior to meeting with constituents and social media barriers were removed. The amended document allows for interaction with the media as long as the trustee is speaking as an individual, does not require submittal of questions prior to 48 hours before a meeting, removed a requirement to coordinate meetings with Oakley’s office and no longer includes a prohibition of trustees engaging constituents through social media or broadcasting their intent to vote a certain way on an agenda item.
One change that Zia herself said she was disappointed to not see in the revised policy pertained to the section about community meetings. In the proposed policy, the school and trustees will work to coordinate meetings in a revolving fashion in districts throughout the city. However, Zia asked for an amendment that would prohibit meetings being held in districts that are up for reelection for a window of six months prior to any election so to avoid any kind of “in-kind” donation to an incumbent’s campaign.
One such community meeting has already been hosted in the college’s second district where Trustee Archuleta is seeking reelection. During last month’s meeting, Archuleta dismissed Zia’s implication that the location of the meeting was politically charged, and accused Zia of using her constituents and faculty to forward her personal agenda.
“You continue to plant the seed of discord in this board, no matter what this board does to improve, you will always find something negative to bring forth,” Archuleta said. “I don’t know how we can function with an individual that continues to make everything negative.”
Vivian Malauulu, a journalism professor at the college—who’s challenging Archuleta for the area two trustee seat—denounced the policy for its potential to limit free speech, pointing out that it would run counter to the district's stated aim to increase communication and transparency. She agreed that hosting community meetings to engage the board’s constituents is a good thing, but voiced support for Zia’s assessment that the placement of some of the meetings has been “extremely political.”
“The very idea to 'all of a sudden' host these meetings in Irma Archuleta and Doug Otto's districts is manipulative and not an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars,” Malauulu said in a statement. “Where were these meetings when student tuition was raised? Or when faculty and staff contracts were negotiated? No public meetings were held when vocational training programs were cut.”
The open forum is scheduled for Wednesday January 20 at 6:00PM inside the T Building on the Liberal Arts Campus.