The Galt Joint Union High School District (GJUHSD) Trustees and staff members met in person behind Plexiglas in the Liberty Ranch High School Library on Feb. 4. It was their first “offline/online” format with only staff and most trustees meeting in person while others “attended” online. Trustee Dennis Richardson attended via Zoom.
First on the agenda was an update on what is known as the Brown Act. Roman Munoz from Lozano Smith Attorneys at Law explained new changes made and now in effect.
Brown Act, enacted in 1953, states, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is good for them not to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” – The Ralph M. Brown Act Government Code 54950.
Munoz started with the intent of the Brown Act is to keep the public informed of the actions, debates and views of locally elected representatives; and to provide the procedural framework for local legislators to meet, debate, act and listen collectively to their constituents.
“What does the Brown Act require?” asked Munoz. “Actions and deliberations (must be) taken openly and in public; meetings are public unless closed session is allowed; meeting agendas and packets must be publicly available and agenda must be posted on district website.”
The Power Point presentation stated that all meetings must be within the school district boundaries; 72 hours of notice must be given for all regular meetings and 24 hours notice for special meetings.
Munoz said the venue protocol has been altered due to COVID-19, yet even pre-COVID telephonic meetings were allowed with stipulations that the meetings were still open and accessible to the public; agendas identify at all locations and be posted in all locations; the public could still comment; the majority of trustees must be within the boundaries; all votes have to be made by roll call and technical problems must be addressed to all.
Post COVID-19 allows for electronic and virtual meetings. All votes must still be made by roll call and technical problems, both real and potential, must be addressed. What has been added is the public must be notified of the methods of the meetings and the board must indicate procedures for resolving accessibility requests. Also, the district must provide the ability of the public to “observe and address items telephonically or otherwise electronically.”
“The first five points have been removed,” said Munoz. “If you think about it, that really makes sense.”
The presentation gave more examples of proper and violating communication between board members and from board members to the public. Serial meetings include “linear or chain meetings” and “hub and spoke meetings.” Munoz expounded on both, first on the linear or chain meeting.
“Let’s say, board member A talks to B and says something like “How are you going to vote at the next meeting?” said Munoz. “(This is) not a violation. Remember, we’re talking about a five-member board so that’s not a majority (in the discussion). Then Board member B talks to Board member C about the same subject matter and they have a discussion. That is a violation of the Brown Act.”
The Hub and Spoke example of communication is that one or more board members ask someone who is not accountable to the Brown Act to pass along messages or information. This is a violation of the Brown Act.
What is permitted by AB 992 passed in 2020, according to Munoz’s presentation, is individual board members may engage in conversations or communications on social media platform to answer questions from the public, provide information to the public and to solicit information from the public regarding a matter that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.
What is prohibited is a majority of the legislative body using social media to discuss among themselves agency business or a specific nature that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the agency and any member of the legislative body responding directly to any communication from another member on an internet-based social media platform regarding matter within their subject-matter jurisdiction. This includes private chat rooms.
“It also states that board members should not engage each other on social media,” Munoz said. “You should not provide any response such as emojis, re-tweeting or even liking a post.”
Munoz expects that a lot of changes will be made in the future regarding social media and the Brown Act. He then asked for questions and comments from board members.
“This is a starting point and it will need to be refined because social media is so prominent in our lives,” Munoz said. “Frankly, these are traps for the unwary.”
Board member Pat Maple was the first to comment after the presentation.
“As far as I can see, there hasn’t been much changed,” Maple said. “Things that need to be voted on don’t happen over the phone. It happens in meetings ... Some of this stuff we talk about isn’t to be voted on and there’s no reason why we can’t discuss it. … To me this is silly.”
Ashley Beckwith, in public comment, said she felt this was a violation of free speech.
Maple said the public did need to be listened to and have a right to comment.
Munoz said the public was definitely within their rights to comment on anything on social media, and board members can even solicit thoughts from the public on social media.
“The problem is that, once board members start responding and the original board member makes more comments, that is a violation,” Munoz said.
Maple asked an additional question.
“Are there any new sanctions if you do (violate)?” Maple asked. “What can they do to you?”
“Under the Brown Act is calls for ‘remedies’; if it’s an intentional violation of the Brown Act, it could be considered a crime,” Munoz said. “You could be subject to an injunction. So what’s the big deal about an injunction? Well, judges don’t like when you break an injunction, and it could be a fine or you could spend some time in jail. There also could be a referral to the Grand Jury. It could be considered criminal act if it defunds the public.”
Maple said the board would handle minor infractions.
Munoz said a member of the public could take action about a Brown Act violation without the board.