Opinion: A heavily redacted report led to a censure at LBCC; the public deserves to see it
The Long Beach City College Board of Trustees voted to reprimand one of its own members during a special meeting Monday, a decision largely based on the findings of a 246-page investigative report that cost thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds.
The public, however, was left guessing about a litany of serious allegations among board members, including sexual harassment, extortion, threats and political corruption.
Clues to the contents of this investigation are scarce: Of the 246 pages in the report, 195 are completely blacked out. Another 38 pages are more than half blacked out; 10 pages are lightly redacted, and only three pages (including its cover letter) are free of redactions.
Many of the redactions happen mid-sentence. In many cases, conjunctions (“with,” “and,” etc.) are the only words visible in lengthy paragraphs.
Here’s a troubling a passage that follows several pages that are blacked out:
In a section about a sexual harassment allegation, figure this out:
The only name consistently visible in the report is that of Trustee Sunny Zia, who has sparred with several of her colleagues for years now. The Board of Trustees voted 3-2 on Monday to censure Zia for the second time, and prohibit her from using district travel funds and serving as a board officer.
The board launched this investigation in 2019, about five months before firing former superintendent-president Reagan Romali. The investigation initially focused on allegations against Romali—as well as Romali’s accusations against at least two current board members—and later its scope was expanded to include Zia.
The budget for the firm in charge of the investigation started at roughly $20,000, and escalated to $602,000.
The resulting report was completed in August 2020. The Post requested a copy, but the request was denied in part on grounds that the report was protected by attorney-client privilege.
A few months later, in November 2020, the district released excerpts of the report in public court filings seeking to bar Zia from participating in closed session discussions about the investigation.
The Post filed a formal Public Records Act request, arguing that if parts of the report were released, all of it should be made available. We were again denied, with the district’s counsel providing a lengthy response that cited attorney-client privilege and ongoing litigation with Romali.
Two years later, the report was finally posted as part of an agenda packet for a special meeting held Monday over whether to censure Zia.
But little of it was decipherable.
At the meeting, one board member, Vivian Malauulu, used part of her five minutes of speaking time to criticize members of the public and the media for not reading the document and nearly two dozen attachments to the board agenda.
Yet fewer than half of the report’s findings were visible—and even those that were readable are impossible to discern since they all contain key redactions.
And, to make matters worse, the public on Monday didn’t even have access to the most current version of the report. The district’s spokesperson acknowledged in an email that a July version of the report posted to the agenda was the wrong version. The board members had access to, and based their decision on, an August report that contained 39 additional pages, which the Post obtained in its redacted form.
The district spokesperson, Stacy Toda, told the Post on Tuesday that the lengthier August version would be uploaded that day, but that has not yet happened.
So why wasn’t the most recent, unredacted report made public, especially when Malauulu said in an email to the Post that the censure vote was based in part on the board’s reading of the report “in its entirety”?
“I agree with you and I wish the entire investigation report could be released,” Malauulu said in her email, “but multiple legal opinions advise against it to protect the interests of the district.”
Board President Uduak-Joe Ntuk said in a phone interview Wednesday that based on legal advice, the report cannot be made public due to ongoing litigation.
But keeping the report confidential for that reason is not something mandated by law; it is advice the board is choosing to take from lawyers it retained and pays, resulting in the document being hidden from public view.
Each redaction in the report is similarly a choice. Many of the partially redacted incidents recounted in the report lacked names of any board member other than Zia’s—even though at least two others were accused of wrongdoing.
Ntuk, who was accused of wrongdoing by Romali and Zia and appears to be the subject of at least one finding in the report, said his name was withheld because the report focused on Zia, not him. Asked why that matters, he said it was because the allegations against him are part of the litigation involving Romali. Yet, the entire report is about allegations surrounding Romali and board members—why pick and choose to release some information, and reveal one name, but not all—even information Romali surely has and could already use in her litigation? Ntuk said those decisions were made by legal counsel.
Vincent Ewing, legal counsel for the district, said in a phone interview he could not comment on the matter.
To be clear, I have no opinion on the findings of the report, nor the decision to censure Zia, nor the allegations against any board member. What I do care about is the public’s right to know what’s in it, and the full extent of what information the board relied upon to punish a trustee who represents 100,000 voters.
My appeal to the board is this: Your credibility, which is rooted in public transparency and accountability, should be at least as valuable to you as your closely guarded litigation strategy.
Let the people who elected you see the report.
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