Columbia trustees trample Brown Act, First Amendment

By Craig Cassidy, The Union Democrat March 16, 2012 03:37 am

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 that.”

The district is already in the process of getting sued by Brennan Pendley’s victim for the sex abuse and John Pendley’s subsequent actions.

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.