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When the School Board doesn’t follow the rules....

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet editor
Saturday September 29, 2001


An occasional column of  

commentary about those who’d rather shine us on. 




When the media spews disinformation, it’s shameful. So I say to those talk-show types who blatantly lied when they told the world our mayor refused to fly the flag: love it or leave it – your jobs, you idiots. 


But there’s more to media disinformation, than prevarication. 

Sometimes we want to bring you the complete story, but we’re foiled by our public officials, who reveal scant or no data. 

Public agencies are required under the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, to provide specific kinds of information to the press and public and to allow the press and public presence at most meetings. 

But we have a problem getting some local officials to follow the rules. Our school leaders are a case in point. 

Remember earlier in the year when the school board flew to LA to gather information about Michele Lawrence (who has since become superintendent)? They let the public know they were going, only after they’d already gone. 

And this very day, perhaps while you’re reading your Planet over a cup of (organic fair-trade) coffee, you’re being shut out of a meeting. 

It’s a closed session. And even though the Brown Act requires an open public comment period, none appears on the agenda. 

So if you’re lucky enough to read this before 9 a.m., with your lawyer and copy of the Brown Act in tow, you might want to forgo your second cup of java and hightail it to the first minutes of the closed-door session.  

Don’t bother to go to Old City Hall, where board meetings usually take place. Head straight up to the meeting at the superintendent’s home, at 1921 San Antonio Ave. If you use a wheelchair to get around and want to comment, sorry, you’re out of luck - the home’s not accessible. (The Brown Act as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that public meetings be held in accessible locations, by the way.) 

How did the school board come to schedule the meeting without a comment period? I put a call in to School Board President Terry Doran, well known as a fighter for democracy. Referring to a public comment period, Doran, who should know better, said: “I don’t know if we’re providing that or not.” He suggested I call the superintendent’s secretary. 

Sorry, Terry, it’s not for you to decide to provide or not. It’s a public right. 

As for the Saturday meeting itself, you’ve got to wonder why it’s so sensitive that it has to be held out of the public’s sight. 

The intent, says the agenda faxed to the Daily Planet, is for a “Public employment performance evaluation: Superintendent.” 

Doran explained the closed-door session as “a work meeting.” He said “it’s something Michele suggested to get feedback.” The board plans to meet at regular intervals in closed session to provide the feedback, he said. 

Terry Francke, general counsel to the California First Amendment Coalition, pointed out that “you’re talking about the chief executive of an agency. It’s hard to imagine what is not fair game for discussion.” 

Generally, evaluations are held annually. If they are to be held more often, “I would find that highly suspect,” Francke said. “The reason for an open board meeting is that the board is to be seen grappling with the problems” of the district. 

Francke said if the superintendent wanted feedback on how she was doing, she could put in calls to the board president. 

Then there’s the question of holding the meeting at the superintendent’s house. 

“It is just my opinion,” Francke said, “a matter of appearance rather than law,” that holding the meeting at the home of the person being evaluated is “singularly strange and inappropriate.” 

“If she expects feedback, she should go to them,” he said. 

To her credit, once the Daily Planet pointed out that holding a meeting without an open comment period and in an inaccessible location was not a good thing to do, the superintendent conceded that it would probably have been better to hold a public portion of the meeting in a public and accessible place. “I didn’t think about opening up in public,” she said apologetically. 


Brown Act non-compliance is not limited to the school board, here in the city where the Free Speech movement was born. 

Take our police department, for example. 

(But before we tear into the problems of getting information from the department, I should note that, without being defensive or making excuses, Police Chief Dash Butler promised Friday to make improvements in his department in order to serve the press and public with more complete and timely public information.) 

While Terry Francke says the police should give the press “timely” information in response to their requests, it often takes days for the Planet to get the info it is seeking – usually simple stuff like what happened in the latest bank robbery. 

PIO Lt. Cynthia Harris, currently on vacation, told the Planet a week ago or so that delays often happen because her first concern is taking care of criminal investigations. 

And isn’t that as it should be?  

If I had my favorite gizmo ripped off, wouldn’t I want the good lieutenant to be meeting with her detectives on my case, rather than giving some reporter the low-down on a bank robbery. Sure I would. 

So hire a civilian as PIO, I suggested to the chief. 

But Butler said civilians wouldn’t know what information is sensitive and what could be given out.  

Maybe you could hire a smart civilian. Go figure. 

But why hire a PIO at all, Francke asked, underscoring that the very best source is the cop on the beat who’s most familiar with the crime. 


If we don’t start getting better information from the cops, and the schools don’t start opening up their meetings as they should, the Daily Planet won’t rip a page out of G. Gordon Liddy or Rush Limbaugh’s book of Anything Goes – which they used to accuse the mayor of UnAmerican activity. We’ll keep plugging away for the truth, supporting Kriss Worthington’s Sunshine Ordinance – buried for the winter in the bowels of the bureaucracy – and hope the school district has the guts to adopt it as well.