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Report says board broke meetings law

Times Staff Writer

Capistrano Unified School District trustees routinely violated the state’s open-meetings law, discussing in secret topics such as construction contracts, how to silence a district critic and ways to prepare parents for bad news about schools, all of which should have been debated in public, according to a report released by the Orange County district attorney’s office Tuesday.

Trustees tried to keep the community from participating in district decision-making and to manipulate public opinion, the report said.

“That such discussions are undertaken in secret by a body charged with the community’s most important obligation, to adequately educate its young, is nothing short of disturbing,” said the report by Assistant Dist. Atty. William J. Feccia.

The 58-page report is the latest blow to the beleaguered southern Orange County district, which this year saw its former superintendent and another top administrator indicted on felony charges of using public funds to influence an election and create an enemies list. Although the alleged violations of the state’s open-meeting law do not meet the bar for criminal prosecution, if the district disputes the findings, prosecutors could file a lawsuit to prove the violations occurred, the report said.

Capistrano Unified spokeswoman Beverly De Nicola said the district received the report Tuesday morning. “This is a serious matter, and the board will need time to review the findings of this report,” she said in a written statement.

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Though most of the district’s 56 schools are well-regarded, its trustees and administrators have been mired in conflicts in recent years. Critics have loudly protested the location of a new high school, opposed attendance boundary changes and fought construction of a $35-million administration complex while hundreds of classes were being held in aging portables.

The critics tried to recall the seven trustees in 2005 but didn’t collect enough signatures. But they succeeded in electing three candidates to the school board in November.

In May, former Supt. James Fleming was charged with misappropriating public funds, conspiracy and using district money to influence an election, and former Assistant Supt. Susan McGill was charged with conspiracy and perjury. They pleaded not guilty in July.

District critics are gathering signatures to force a recall election against two of the remaining old-guard trustees, Marlene Draper and Sheila Benecke.

Draper and Benecke, as well as trustees Duane Stiff and Mike Darnold, and former trustees Shelia Henness, Crystal Kochendorfer and John Casabianca, were on the board at the time of the alleged open-meeting violations. The state’s Brown Act allows elected officials to meet in closed sessions in strictly limited circumstances, such as employee evaluations, labor negotiations and legal matters, and also spells out what must be disclosed publicly about these meetings.

Tony Beall, one of the leaders of the recall movement, called on Draper, Benecke, Stiff and Darnold to step down.

“The news today is just more of the same, and it makes it so clear that these people no longer are worthy to serve as our trustees,” he said. “They have violated the public trust. They have broken the law, and they need to resign immediately.”

The district has had similar problems. In 1991, the Orange County Grand Jury found that the district had improperly conducted closed board meetings.

And last year, gadfly Ron Lackey sued the district after a summary of a July 30, 2005, closed-session board meeting, supposedly to discuss Fleming’s job evaluation, was leaked to the news media. The first item on the summary read: “In general, board members want to start to limit Ron Lackey and the amount of items he can address.”

Lackey and the district settled in February, when Capistrano Unified agreed to record all closed-session meetings for a year, provide public notice of closed-session items as required by law, provide trustees with training on the Brown Act open-meetings law and pay Lackey’s lawyer fees of $16,000.

The July 30, 2005, meeting is among several that the district attorney’s report questioned. That meeting, along with one on Jan. 21, 2006, were characterized as Saturday sessions in which trustees would evaluate the superintendent. In reality, trustees discussed matters such as autism, the school calendar, parent fundraising, advertising on school buses and the district’s policy on head lice.

The report said such discussions show an attempt “to control and limit public participation in open meetings, as well as an unflattering concern for community reaction and ‘what the press will do’ concerning actions of the board or the failures of the school system it manages” and “a desire to manipulate press and public opinion from behind closed doors.”

The report also faults the board for discussing in closed session in 2003 a $22.7-million contract with Valley Commercial Contractors to build the new administration center. Although the board voted to approve the contract in a public meeting, the closed-door discussions were inappropriate because they allowed trustees to agree on a decision without the public’s knowledge or participation, the report said.

“The subsequent open meeting is little more than ‘ceremonial,’ ” the report said, adding that if such discussions were commonplace, it was no surprise that the board’s votes tended to be unanimous.

When the board agreed in closed session to pay the contractor an additional $3.8 million to settle a potential legal dispute, terms of the deal were never publicly disclosed. It is lawful to discuss potential litigation in closed session, but the topic must be made public before the meeting, and any action must be made public afterward.

The report makes several nonbinding recommendations: The board ought to retain legal counsel familiar with the Brown Act; broadcast or webcast its open meetings; record all closed sessions; and train trustees and administrators on the open-meetings law.

Attempts to reach Benecke and Draper were unsuccessful Tuesday. Stiff declined to comment, saying he had not had time to review the report.

Darnold also declined to comment on the report.

Former trustee Henness, who lost a reelection bid in November, said she had not seen the report but said she recalled that they were typically advised by Fleming or their attorneys about what could be discussed in closed session.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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