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If Rocco has a message, it’s lost in the delivery

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I hadn’t seen Steve Rocco in action since his first school board meeting in December 2004, but he wasn’t hard to spot Thursday night: he was the only trustee wearing a watch cap and dark glasses. It may have been the same cap he was wearing in his debut more than two years ago.

And the only trustee with “Truth” spelled out on a second nameplate in front of him. And the only one with fellow trustee Kathy Moffat’s framed photo in front of him.

Referring to the photograph after the meeting, I said to Moffat, “Is that you?” She probably didn’t know who I was, but she smiled wanly. Rocco said, “That’s Kathy. Our leader.”

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In a twisted way that I normally might appreciate, that could have been funny. A little guerrilla theater, if you will, from the loyal opposition to the Orange Unified School District majority.

Except that there’s not much amusing about Rocco. At least, not from the last two board meetings in which his attempt March 8 to air his theory about the cabal of business, political and educational interests that run the county led the board majority to look for a way to keep him from veering off track.

That brought us to Thursday night’s meeting, with brickbats flying back and forth between Rocco and various members of the OUSD establishment.

Rocco may think he’s the loyal opposition, and I’d love it if he were. As someone who cut his journalistic teeth covering a school board and has seen many since, I’ve never seen one that couldn’t benefit from a genuine watchdog.

But Rocco fails miserably at the one thing he claims to want to do, which is to shine a light on corruption or favoritism or incompetence.

He fails because if he were half as savvy as he thinks he is, he’d be able to convey his arguments to the press or a reasonable segment of the public. But he never quite seems to get there. He’s the maddening theorist who, before getting to whatever point he wants to make, forces you to take the long way around.

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If ever anyone was made for the Internet, it’s Rocco.

As a board member, he appears to be nothing more than a bore.

His chief opponent in getting his message across is a conspiracy of one: himself.

The March 8 meeting degenerated into goofiness when Rocco was permitted 20 minutes at the end of the meeting to discuss the cabal he calls “The Partnership.”

To suggest that powerful coalitions can call the shots in cities, counties or school districts is hardly new ground. In many cases, it’s probably spot-on.

But I’m trying to imagine a worse messenger than Rocco, much better suited to being a cool character on “Lost” than a school board member.

A videotape of the March 8 meeting shows it took him a full 12 minutes of preamble before he appeared set to begin reading from his 4 1/2 pages of notes on The Partnership. By then, patience had run out and when he began, “In 1976 ... “ board members had had enough and voted to table his item. It’s worth noting that this segment was in addition to 19 minutes he’d taken earlier in the meeting to assess the district on various fronts.

Only to Rocco does 30 minutes of speaking time amount to stifling dissent.

At Thursday’s meeting, it was more of the same. The board majority is considering a new policy to make it harder for Rocco to stray off district business. To some, that may sound like censorship. To anyone who has to sit through board meetings, it is merely an attempt to confine conversation to district-related issues.

Eventually Thursday, board President Kim Nichols called a recess after Rocco and Trustee Wes Poutsma got a bit too close for comfort.

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That occurred after Rocco, in referring to Moffat, said, “Every dirty thing that has happened in this district has her hand on it,” and extended his hand in her direction. In so doing, it hung in Poutsma’s face, who was sitting next to him.

Poutsma pushed the hand away, prompting Rocco to tell Poutsma not to touch him and to invoke “the district’s penchant for what he called bullying, thuggery and illegal acts.”

Heeding the recess, Poutsma left the boardroom and didn’t return. In the parking lot, he said he was more fed up than angry.

With the meeting winding down, Rocco addressed rumors of a recall effort against him and, perhaps, colleague Rick Ledesma, whose vote allowed Rocco to put The Partnership on the agenda and who sometimes sides with Rocco against the board majority. “A recall against Rocco is probably a necessity,” Rocco said. “Go for it. I’m a big fan of recalls. Mine, yours. I love ‘em.”

However, he said, don’t include Ledesma. Rocco said the two are not in league together, noting, “I can’t say enough nice things about Mr. Ledesma. If you’ve got recall in your blood, keep it pure. Keep it anti-Rocco.”

I’m sure Ledesma was thrilled to get the Rocco endorsement.

I’d love to be the contrarian and defend Rocco. Who doesn’t love performance art? A bit of renegade passion in the face of the establishment?

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Alas, his behavior reminded me of what I wrote after attending his first meeting in 2004. His tenure, I wrote, “will come to be remembered with sadness and regret.”

From what I saw Thursday night and from the tape of the March 8 meeting, Rocco is well on the way to making me a prophet.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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