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

democratic forum.

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.