Open meeting law and 1st amendment

By Christopher Smith, Ph.D.

The capacity of some people to twist acts of compassion and innocence into accusations of misdoings and corruption doesn’t surprise me, but it does astound me, especially by those with an agenda of hate for anything not them.

Case in point, the authors of the two editorials that appeared in a recent edition of the Ramona Sentinel alleging a violation of the Brown Act and Open Meeting Laws by three current school board members who published an endorsement letter for two RUSD school board candidates.  

The intent of the Brown Act is to prohibit quorums of public officials (e.g., a school board) from assembling “in private” for the specific purpose of colluding on an issue that may be decided upon (“within the jurisdiction”) by that governing entity. The Brown Act does not preclude “quorums” of public officials from assembling and discussing issues that are not within the jurisdiction of the governing entity. If it did, it would violate several tenants of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that “we the people” can assemble and voice our opinion as we see fit.

And three members of the public, who also happen to be current board members, saw fit to endorse two of several very qualified candidates for the school board.

The endorsement editorial was co-written by two members of the board. At a non-Board public meeting, the original co-authors did a final review and signed the editorial. Subsequently, a third member asked that their name be added to the endorsement.

Yes, it was that simple. Since sitting board members DO NOT elect new board members (an action outside the jurisdiction of the Board) and we simply expressed our “free speech rights” on a social issue (our personal beliefs), it is inconceivable how one could arrive at the conclusion that a violation of law had occurred — unless one had ulterior motives.

In addition, it is the position of the current school board not to take any official position on political candidates, propositions, etc., not directly within the district’s jurisdiction. But, this board position does not preclude members from advocating issues as individuals or as a group of individuals, as was the case with the editorial. The editorial purposely excluded our official association as members of the current school board.

In retrospect, could we have taken a different endorsement approach? A common practice amongst public officials is to avoid meeting at all (or dispersing) if a quorum is evident to avoid the “perception” of collusion. One could rightfully argue that we should have been more sensitive to this “practice” and wrote independent endorsement editorials.

But that didn’t happen.  If the charge is a lack of political decorum and sensitivity, then I humbly ask for the public’s forgiveness.

The Brown Act, tempered by the First Amendment, does afford public officials the opportunity to assemble, even if a quorum exists. And most functional boards do take advantage of these opportunities; for example, quorums of board members carpool to CSBA school board training workshops, attend annual “Salute To Teachers” galas, sign sympathy and congratulatory cards to district employees, agree on the purchase (with our own money) of gifts each year for retiring RHS student board members, chat in the parking lot after board meetings to discuss the goings-on of our children or our latest home remodeling projects, attend church together, or meet socially to discuss our political, social, economic or religious views, and if the opportunity presents itself, to pen an editorial voicing our opinion — an inalienable Constitutional right.

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