Updated: Wed, Apr 7, 2010, 11:46 am
Uploaded: Tue, Apr 6, 2010, 3:54 pm
High school board asked to rescind superintendent appointment
Atherton resident and open-government advocate Peter Carpenter has made good on his threat to try to force the governing board of the Sequoia Union High School District to rescind its appointment of Assistant Superintendent James Lianides to succeed Superintendent Patrick Gemma, who announced plans to retire in June.
In an April 5 letter to the board, attorney James M. Chadwick of the Menlo Park firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton requests, on Mr. Carpenter's behalf, that the board rescind its actions of Feb. 24, when it voted 4-1 in closed session to limit the candidate search to district employees, and the subsequent appointment of Mr. Lianides on March 17.
Mr. Chadwick cites cases from the 1980s to support a claim that the state's open-government law, the Brown Act, allows legislative bodies to discuss individuals in closed session but not matters of process.
Attorneys for the Sequoia district have said that the district's actions were legal.
Posted by Peter Carpenter,
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 7, 2010 at 4:48 pm
Here is my complaint:
April 5, 2010
VIA FACSIMILE AND FEDEX
President Olivia Martinez
Members of the Board of Trustees
Sequoia Union High School District
Board of Trustees
480 James Avenue
Redwood City, CA 94062
tel. (650) 369-1411
fax. (650) 306-8870
Re: Board of Trustees Meetings on February 24, 2010, and March 17, 2010
Appointment of a New Superintendent
Dear President Martinez and Members of the Board of Trustees:
I am writing on behalf of Atherton and District resident Peter Carpenter to request that the Board of Trustees ("the Board") cure and correct two actions: the Board's February 24 decision, made during a closed-session discussion, to limit the search for a new superintendent to employees of the Sequoia Union High School District ("the District"), and the Board's March 17 appointment of James Lianides as the District's new superintendent. Mr. Carpenter requests that both actions be rescinded, and that any and all future actions with respect to the hiring of a superintendent be taken in strict compliance with the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The Board's February 24 closed-session discussion violated the Ralph M. Brown Act (Government Code section 54950, et seq., hereafter the "Brown Act"). In particular, that discussion violated Government Code sections 54953 and 54957.
On February 24, the Board convened in a closed session to discuss the search for a new superintendent. The Board apparently considered the relative merits of internal candidates for the superintendent job. The Board went beyond that, however, to discuss the broader policy
issue of whether to limit the superintendent search to District employees, or to look beyond the District. For this second discussion, the Board remained in closed session an action which
exceeds the Brown Act's narrow exception for personnel matters.
The personnel exception, Government Code section 54597, permits closed
sessions to "consider the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance or dismissal of a public employee." The exception is to be construed "strictly and narrowly." (San Diego Union v. City Council (1983) 146 Cal.App.3d 947, 954.) It therefore plainly does not permit policy discussions which go beyond the "appointment, employment, evaluation. . . or dismissal" of a particular employee. (See, e.g., Santa Clara Federation of Teachers v. Governing Board (1981) 116 Cal.App.3d 831; 63 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen 153 (1980).) The Board's discussion of the broad policy issue of whether to limit its search to insiders exceeds this narrow exception.
As all members of the Board well know, the Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent holds a position of considerable power and importance in the community. The position oversees the education of more than 8,000 students, and steers a large organization with
an annual budget of more than $100 million. The person who holds this position wields enormous influence. More importantly, he or she holds a position of public trust. The fundamental and critical decision of how to go about finding the best person for this job is precisely the sort of decision the California Legislature intended to be conducted in the open.
The fundamental premise of the Brown Act is that "[t]he people, in delegating their authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know." (Brown Act, section 54950.) By excluding the
public from the decision-making process, the Board has shrouded in secrecy an important policy discussion that should have been exposed to the light of day. Your decision to conduct secret deliberations on an important policy decisioni.e., the decision not to conduct a search that might have produced more highly accomplished and qualified candidates for the most critical position in the District not only violates the Brown Act, but contravenes its central purpose: to ensure public awareness of and participation in such decisions. Furthermore, this critical appointment was made without the public even knowing who the candidate was before the decision was made, thereby depriving all concerned of the opportunity for public comment on his qualifications.
Therefore, Mr. Carpenter respectfully requests that the Board take immediate action to cure and correct those violations by rescinding the decision to conduct an internal search, by rescinding the appointment of Mr. Lianides, and by ensuring that any future actions
with regard to the hiring of a superintendent are made in accordance with the Brown Act.
Finally, the Board should take all necessary steps to ensure that hard-copy and electronic documents or records relating to the search for a new superintendent are preserved, including electronic communications or records that might otherwise be erased or expunged by automated processes.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your prompt response, as required by the Brown Act.
SHEPPARD, MULLIN, RICHTER & HAMPTON LLP