Columbia trustees trample Brown Act, First Amendment
Craig Cassidy, The Union Democrat /
Who can say how far Columbia Elementary School District Board members will go in defending their superintendent, John Pendley?
How about attempting to subvert the First Amendment and the state's Ralph M. Brown Act, which assures Californians' right to speak openly and participate in public meetings?
Indeed, drawing on a paranoid, scheming mindset and some half-baked legal advice, the board majority Tuesday announced that the public will no longer be allowed to discuss at open meetings the campus' 2010 sex scandal involving Pendley's son, Brennan.
This is outrageous.
The well-worn controversy started when the younger Pendley, 24, an
after-school aide, had sex several times in his classroom with an
underage girl (15, even though he told probation officers he thought
she was "12 or 13"). A newspaper investigation found the elder Pendley
was responsible in as far as he helped the unqualified and obviously
troubled lad get the job.
When his son became the subject of an investigation by sheriff's
deputies, John Pendley allowed him to take a job at another school he
oversees, Belleview Elementary, and used his position to encourage
staffers at Columbia to write letters to the Sheriff's Office and a
judge defending Brennan and trashing the victim.
John Pendley - for reasons only he can understand, or maybe due to
some "character flaw," as local physician Dr. Jim Mosson suggested at
Tuesday's board meeting - has refused to do the honorable thing and
step down. The board majority, even more inexplicably, has backed him
up, as have perhaps two dozen devoted school employees.
An equal number of concerned citizens have also gone to the recent
meetings to call for John Pendley's resignation. This gave birth to the
board's suspicious legal theory that debuted Tuesday.
Few in the audience, if anyone, knew what hit them.
But contained in the fine print of the trustees' agenda for Tuesday
was a note that the board would meet briefly as a "committee" and hold
a public comment period on the scandal.
Then, leaning shakily on a section on the state's Government Code,
board President Clark Segerstrom gaveled the Pendley subject into at
least temporary board history.
The section of the code the board misconstrued, Section 54954.3, is
part of the public meeting law called the Ralph M. Brown Act.
One of its provisions says an agenda for a regular public meeting
"need not provide an opportunity for members of the public to address
the legislative body on any item that has already been considered by a
committee composed exclusively of members of the legislative body, at a
public meeting wherein all interested members of the public were
afforded the opportunity to address the committee on the item."
The same Government Code section - conveniently ignored - says all
board meeting agendas must provide a "public comment" period. It also
says: "The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public
criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the
agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body."
(Note: Trustee Jeff Tolhurst deserves special recognition as a
defender of the First Amendment and common sense for disagreeing with
the board majority).
Tom Newton, general counsel with the California Newspaper
Publisher's Association, says it appears the district board is twisting
the law to stifle public criticism.
"Let's look at the language," Newton said. "As a part of each
meeting, they are required to allow the public to comment on things
that aren't on the agenda. For that part of the meeting, at least, they
cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination."
The section of the law cited by the district is intended to allow a
government board to, at some point, close a "public hearing" on a
specific policy matter (such as, say, consideration of a new rules
prohibiting nepotism in hiring). It's not intended for wholesale
muzzling of public opinion.
"They can't use it as a subterfuge to prevent people from speaking
their minds at a public meeting," Newton said. "They're trying to move
on, but maybe the public's not ready?"
Asked if he thought the board was bending the law's intent, Terry
Francke, an attorney and leading authority on the Brown Act, quipped:
"I don't think it's bent. It's been broken."
The Brown Act requires the board to provide time for "any kind of
comment that relates to the authority of the school board," he said.
"They can't prevent the people from bringing the topic up at a
subsequent meeting. There's no basis for it. If they persist in this
view, they could be sued."
He generously added, "I think that possibly this was a mistaken
overstatement by the board. I assume by now they realize they can't do
The district is already in the process of getting sued by Brennan
Pendley's victim for the sex abuse and John Pendley's subsequent
Are district trustees ready to waste yet more taxpayer dollars
defending this disingenuous board maneuver, should it be challenged -
dragging the school's parents and teachers through another
ill-conceived legal battle to defend their discredited superintendent?
District critics, following Tuesday's gavelling, shrugged their
shoulders and said they will take their complaints to some other, more
But they shouldn't retreat.
The district's interpretation of the law is badly flawed and
deserves to be peacefully, reasonably challenged by speaking up at next
month's board meeting, April 10.
As for Columbia's board members, they should take a refresher course on the Brown Act and reread the Bill of Rights.