Claremont Insider: CUSD, LaConte: Guilty as Charged

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

CUSD, LaConte: Guilty as Charged

The other candidates in the school board election, Hilary LaConte and Sam Mowbray, do not play political games. They say what they mean, and mean what they say, based on actual facts. We may disagree with some of their positions, but we know they are responsible community leaders who don't resort to tricky campaign strategies driven by political expediency.

- Dave Nemer, letter to Claremont Courier, 9/19/11


CUSD Board Member
Steven Llanusa

Last Saturday's Claremont Courier had an article by Landus Rigsby, who covers the public schools beat.   The headline, "Board sidetracked by Brown Act violation allegation," implied that CUSD Board Member Steven Llanusa's complaints about open governance violations by the board have distracted the other board members and CUSD Interim Superintendent Gloria Johnston from the more important work of running the school district.

Rigsby's article focused on a complaint Llanusa had made to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office about an alleged Brown Act violation by the CUSD Board and Johnston at their May 19, 2011, meeting.  The Brown Act is a California sunshine law that's supposed to guarantee transparency in government.

In the article, Johnston indicated that the entire complaint was a waste of the district's time and money.  She also claimed that the DA's response "indicated that there was no reason to pursue further action..."  Rigsby quoted Johnston:
"I feel it's very important for me to clear my reputation in terms of being in charge of or violating the Brown Act in closed session," Ms Johnston said.  "I have in front of me both letters that you have submitted to the district attorney's office, Mr. Llanusa, and neither of them indicate that a substantial violation took place."
Additionally, the article quoted Board President Beth Bingham:
[Bingham] agreed with Ms. Johnston's suggestion that the district attorney's response eliminated the need to pursue further action.

Board Vice President Jeff Stark went even further, stopping just short of calling Llanusa a liar:
Jeff Stark
...Jeff Stark described Mr. Llanusa's recollection of the May 19, 2011 meeting as "incorrect."

"You keep saying there was a Brown Act violation, but clearly the letter from the district attorney does not agree with that," Mr. Stark said.  "So again, Steven, maybe it's an misinterpretation of what the district attorney is saying.  Maybe it's a misinterpretation of what happened in closed session.  But my mmory of that session is dramatically different."

So if Rigsby's article is to be believed, Llanusa's Brown Act complaints are baseless, and his accusations about the CUSD board's disregard for open government laws are not much more than a meaningless distraction caused by a whiney incompetent, which is how the four other board members like to portray Llanusa.

The Rigsby article also helps buttress claims by CUSD board supporters like Dave Nemer that the board, other than Llanusa, have achieved a sort of organizational perfection unmarred by things like Brown Act violations.   This is no small matter since one of the issues that's arisen in the current CUSD board election is the board's lack of transparency, at least as it's perceived in some parts of the community.

Long and short, if Rigsby reporting is at all accurate, Llanusa's full of more crap than a Christmas goose as far as his allegations go.


Now, we've disagreed with Llanusa on many things and certainly haven't supported him in the past.  But in this case, we've found evidence that not only does Llanusa appear to be right about CUSD's contempt for open government law, but that the district attorney's office has in fact warned the CUSD board about their behavior.

A year ago, at the board's October 7, 2010, meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss what was listed on their agenda as a "Superintendent's Evaluation--Update" as well as a labor negotiation conference.  A complaint was filed with the Public Integrity Division of the district attorney's office alleging that the closed session was a ruse under which the board went beyond the claimed labor negotiation discussion and the evaluation of then-Superintendent Terry Nichols.  The complaint alleged that in closed session the board also discussed budgetary matters and district goals - things that by law are supposed to be considered in open, not closed, session.

CUSD Board Agenda for 10/7/10
(Click to Enlarge)

CUSD Board Member
Hilary LaConte
We should also note that the alleged Brown Act violation occurred under the watch of then-Board President Hilary LaConte, who is currently running for reelection to the board.  LaConte, like Jeff Stark, has publicly scoffed at the idea that the CUSD board is lacking in transparency and is completely open and above board.

We would normally be inclined to leave matters at that.  After all, what occurs in closed session stays in closed session.  Even if a violation occurred, who could ever prove it?

Well, now comes a public response from the LADA's Public Integrity Division to the complaint, presumably from Steve Llanusa (the complaintant is unnamed), regarding that 10/7/10 closed session meeting.  The DA's response, dated 9/29/11 and received by the school district on 10/7/11, belies the claims of openness by the board and its supporters and supports Llanusa's accusations completely.

Here is the DA's response (click on the small "S" at the lower left-hand corner of the image to see a larger view):
LADA ltr 9-29-11

Some key points from the letter:
If, as alleged, the discussions included budgetary considerations and prospective goals of the District, then such discussions in closed session violated the law....

[Evidence Supporting the Allegations
- .ed]
We obtained written documents that reportedly reflect matters that were considered in closed session. Copies of the documents are attached. They include what appears to be a presentation slide entitled "CUC Strategic Planning", dated October 6, 2010, and a typed memo with a caption of "Needed Support from the Board". These matters exceed the permissible boundaries of a closed session performance evaluation and do not have anything to do with labor negotiations.  The memo makes suggestions about communications between the Superintendent, the Board, and other groups. It addresses board goals, and public support for possible bond funding....

Unagendized, closed session discussion of such matters violates the Brown Act....

Even if the matters were only presented and not discussed, such consideration is still illegal.....

Similarly, closed session discussions regarding budget issues, proposed expenditures of stimulus money, the possibility of bond revenues, identification of programs or positions to cut, under the guise of Labor Negotiations or Performance Evaluations are simply impermissible.

[CUSD: Don't Use Closed Session to Duck the Public]

We recognize that the issues faced by legislative bodies like your board are difficult, especially in times of financial uncertainty. Such matters often generate controversy and disagreement that is minimized when the discussions are conducted outside the public's view. However, the Brown Act does not permit closed session consideration of matters simply because they are controversial or difficult; rather, permissible closed session topics are narrowly defined and limited to very specific matters for which the public's interest is best served by closed session consideration, such as the range of acceptable terms for a real estate transaction or labor negotiation that is in the works, or the candid communication between the legislative body and its attorney, or the forthright and frank evaluation of an employee who serves at the pleasure of the legislative body itself.

[Warning to Board:  Watch Yourselves in the Future]

In the absence of any objective evidence such as a recording of the closed session discussions, the scope of discussions that occurred in closed session cannot be conclusively proven. However, the impermissible expansion of closed session discussions to include matters that are not expressly authorized for closed session consideration is troubling. We therefore express to you our deep concern about such conduct, to the extent that it has occurred. We urge you to review the circumstances that are described herein, and demonstrate your commitment to compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the Brown Act, by limiting any closed session consideration to those matters properly agendized, and expressly permitted by law. By so doing, you encourage public confidence in the integrity of your agency, and the decision making process, which is vital.

The DA's letter certainly gives Board Member Llanusa new credibility when it comes to Brown Act complaints against the CUSD board. It also detracts enormously from the credibility of the four non-Llanusan CUSD board members and their supporters with respect to their claims of perfection when it comes to transparency, openness, and integrity. The DA's response of 9/29/11 belies the board members' quotes in Saturday's Courier and is especially troubling considering that the school district received the DA's letter weeks before Landus Rigsby's article.

One would expect the school board, having been caught and reprimanded so recently, would display at least a little contrition. Instead, they go on the attack and act as if they, not Llanusa, were the victims. If the school board were as honorable as they claim, they would admit their errors and work publicly to correct them. But they seem incapable of admitting any wrong, even when confronted with the evidence of their misdeeds. Hilary LaConte, the presiding board member at the time of the 10/7/10 incident takes no responsibility and simply seeks to glide through her reelection campaign as if nothing happened.

And perhaps she's right. If no one says anything and the truth is buried, then nothing really did happened, even if it did. As we've said before, Jeff Stark had it right all along: That's the way things have always been done in Claremont.