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COC Board Accused of Brown Act Violations

| News | February 14, 2019

College of the Canyons’ board of trustees committed Brown Act violations by failing to post meeting times and agendas of its finance subcommittee, the faculty president and two board members allege.

A community member also alleges a different violation by failing to provide a link to the board agenda on the college website.

The finance subcommittee was established during the April 23, 2008 meeting, according to the minutes. While the Gazette was unable to find a printed list of members, many named current board President Michael Berger, fellow member Michele Jenkins and Vice President of Business Services Sharlene Coleal as members (Jenkins confirmed her involvement, Berger declined comment, citing the unrelated union negotiations that he said have reached an impasse; and Coleal, who was traveling in Sacramento, hung up on a reporter).

At issue is whether this is a standing committee and, therefore, subject to the Brown Act, which governs meetings conducted by local legislative bodies and presumes public access unless specifically excepted.

According to the law, “a commission, committee, board, or other body of a local agency, whether permanent or temporary, decision-making or advisory, created by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of a legislative body” is subject to the Act.

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The law also requires meeting times to be posted at least 72 hours in advance and an agenda or agenda packet made available.

COC’s Board Procedure 2220 states, “The Board may by action establish committees that it determines are necessary to assist the Board in its responsibilities. Any committee established by board action shall comply with the requirements of the Brown Act and with these policies regarding open meetings.”

Several people, including board members Joan MacGregor and Edel Alonso, and faculty president Wendy Brill-Wynkoop believe this is a standing committee. They say that Berger, Jenkins, Coleal, and various members of Coleal’s staff meet regularly and report to the board.

This matches Jenkins’ own description: “Sharlene and her staff in the business office go through and summarize the items that we reviewed and sends it out to us for our own information and to make it easy when we’re at board meetings. We can refer to them if we want to help illuminate any unusual financial issues.”

MacGregor said she and Alonso would like to serve on that subcommittee, “but it’s been consistently Michele and Michael Berger the past six years.”

“If they’ve been meeting on a regular basis and they’ve been appointed to that committee, it sounds to me like a committee,” Alonso said. “If it’s a standing committee, then they need to follow the Brown Act, and that means they need to advertise their dates and agendas and minutes and so forth.”

But College of the Canyons Public Information Officer Eric Harnish said in an email the board did not follow through with any subcommittee meetings after April 23, 2008. Jenkins said the subcommittee meets only “once every couple months or so and only if there’s something unusual in the agenda, in terms of the financial area.”

However, the Gazette found 13 agendas and two email summaries from Aug. 6, 2013 to July 1, 2014 on Business Services Department letterhead. Many of those meetings were held regularly on the first Tuesday of the month.

Harnish wrote that shortly after April 23, 2008, college President/Chancellor Dianne Van Hook took it upon herself to approach Coleal and see if she wanted to meet with one or two trustees to discuss potential board questions. The first meeting took place in December 2010, he said, and either Berger or Jenkins would report to the board.

Because it was Van Hook’s idea, Harnish wrote, it differs from board policy and, therefore, does not fall under the Brown Act.

Jenkins disputed it’s a standing committee.

“The idea is that way, a couple of us are hearing more information so we can carry it back to the other board members at the meeting,” she said. “It meets so irregularly that I can’t remember the last time we met.”

Terry Francke, chief counsel of the Sacramento-area nonprofit Californians Aware, said this is a standing committee because the board minutes say so.

“That’s all you need for classifying it as a standing committee, if it’s been created by the board itself,” Francke said. “It has a fixed assignment within the jurisdiction of the body itself. Anything that has to do with finances presumably goes through them.”

Jenkins said college attorney Mary Dowell doesn’t think the subcommittee falls under the Brown Act (Dowell didn’t return a call or email).

“That’s not what we’ve been told by our attorney,” Jenkins said. “It depends on the attorneys you look at and how familiar they are with the state Education Code.”

The Brown Act is part of the Government Code. It says nothing about keeping and posting minutes, although the California Public Records Act allows the public to obtain copies of any minutes. MacGregor and Alonso have not seen any minutes but believe there should be some.

Since the Brown Act was passed in 1953, no one has ever been successfully prosecuted for violating it, according to the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit Francke worked for before Californians Aware.

Individuals may bring one of three lawsuits to enforce it, one of which is to void a past action. This is what Saugus realtor Steve Petzold has chosen to do.

Petzold, a sometimes vocal critic of the college – so much so that Van Hook once got a restraining order against him, effectively banning him from attending board meetings – accused the board of violating the Brown Act by failing to include a link on its website homepage to the Jan. 16 meeting agenda (he originally wrote the meeting was Jan. 9, but corrected himself). The letter, addressed to Van Hook, demands the board declare all actions it took at that meeting null and void.

In keeping with the law, Petzold’s letter said the school has 30 days to take action. If it does nothing, Petzold has 15 days to initiate court proceedings.

Harnish said in an email, “We are still looking into his allegation, and will get back to you about that.”

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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