A year-long court battle over whether a Long Beach Community College District trustee should be forced to recuse herself from closed session meetings ended this week when a judge denied the district’s request to issue an order barring the trustee.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel denied the district’s request after a Nov. 9 trial, over a year after the district filed its suit to block Trustee Sunny Zia claiming that she “repeatedly refused to recuse herself” from closed-session items regarding an outside investigation into alleged misconduct by Zia and former Superintendent-President Reagan Romali.
Romali was fired in March 2020, and Zia and the rest of the board have been sparring over the contents of the investigation report, which was completed in August 2020 but the college has refused to make it public.
Other trustees claimed that Zia had continued to refuse to leave virtual closed session meetings regarding the investigation, leading to Board President Uduak-Joe Ntuk to instruct college IT staff to remove Zia from a January 2021 Zoom meeting and use Zoom’s technology to block her from portions of the virtual closed sessions remotely.
Board counsel Vincent C. Ewing said the college had a reasonable concern that Zia would not leave meetings on her own volition, and filing the suit helped get her to agree to recuse herself from parts of meetings that involved her.
But the judge ruled against issuing a formal order that would block Zia from meetings, as Zia was already doing that voluntarily.
The district contends that Zia should not be in the room during closed discussions because she had a conflict of interest after making public statements that the investigation into Romali was a “waste of taxpayer dollars” and that her defense of Romali showed her “obvious interest in the outcome of the investigation.”
Court records show that Zia had provided substantial evidence that she had been recusing herself from closed session items about herself since Jan. 27, something that was supported by a declaration submitted by Trustee Virginia Baxter.
Zia maintained that the meetings should be segmented so that she could sit in on the portion of the discussion about potential litigation from Romali so her constituents could have a voice at the table. Romali has not filed a lawsuit against the district since she was fired in March 2020.
The year of litigation has only added to the costs tied to the investigation, which is already in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The contract for the investigation was originally approved in 2019 for $20,000 but has since grown to a total contract amount of $602,000, of which the college has already paid out over $335,000.
Fees for other firms, Liebert Cassidy Whitmore and Atkinson, Anderson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, both of which appear in court documents related to the suit, could account for hundreds of thousands of dollars more that the district spent on this case.
It’s unclear how much of those fees went toward suing Zia and how much was spent on other issues the board hired the firms to handle. The district “declined the opportunity to respond” to questions about how much money has been spent on the investigation or the trial.
Zia said she is still considering whether to seek attorney fees from the district.
Zia claims that over $500,000 has been spent on this issue, something she called “frivolous” and equated to political retribution. In an interview, Zia said that the money could have been better spent on more pressing student needs like housing for homeless students.
The district recently announced it was opening up one of its parking structures for homeless students to sleep in their cars.
“The court’s ruling proves that I did nothing wrong and I look forward to putting this wasteful effort behind me and continue supporting the success of our students and fighting for my constituents and prudent spending of taxpayer dollars, as I’ve always done,” Zia said in a statement. “Hopefully these trustees who brought this lawsuit against me can do the same and focus on student success as almost all the remaining trustees have done.”