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Editorial: School district's lapse undermines public trust

 

Editor's note: This editorial was written for print prior to the May 16 board meeting. Click here for a report on the May 16 meeting.

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The May 1 vote by Woodside Elementary School District trustees to fill a board vacancy by appointment rather than by election might not, at first glance, seem like a departure from standard procedure. That's the method the school board chose two years ago when another member resigned with only six months left on his term; it's a commonly used strategy by districts wanting to avoid holding an election in the face of a board resignation.

But the process that led to the May 1 vote unfortunately was not standard procedure. It was shrouded and bumbling, leading to a board action that we believe was a violation of the state's open meeting law, the Brown Act. The district is doing the right thing this week in starting the process anew to fill the seat being vacated by Wendy Warren Roth, who resigned last month.

That said, however, there are a number of questions district officials might want to answer. For example, why did the district put up a website page to accept applications to fill the vacancy even before Ms. Roth submitted her resignation?

Also, with 18 months left on Ms. Roth's term, who made the decision to call for applicants to fill her spot by appointment, rather than schedule a public board meeting to discuss options, which would include asking the voters to fill the position? Isn't it the board as a whole that should make such a decision?

And a real head-scratcher: Why did the minutes of the May 1 meeting reflect "alternative facts" about the official action taken by the board, rather than the action it actually took on an item that wasn't even on the agenda -- making it a Brown Act violation?

Whatever action the board takes at its May 16 meeting (after the Almanac's press time), it will, we hope, have followed the legal requirements in properly noticing the discussion and possible action on its agenda. By doing so, it allows members of the public an opportunity to offer comment and recommendations on a way forward, if they choose to do so.

But in hurtling forward to fill the vacancy, beginning April 5 -- the day before Ms. Roth officially announced her resignation -- district officials have undermined the public's trust in a process that the public is entitled to participate in. The district's actions stir old suspicions that board members who don't want to serve another term resign early so that their colleagues can fill the vacancy, rather than allow voters to do so. And the fact that neither Ms. Roth nor the district has provided an explanation for the resignation doesn't help.

The Brown Act has been in place since 1953. It was enacted and revised over the decades to ensure that the business of the public is conducted in public. Violations of this law may occur by design, or merely through ignorance or carelessness. But regardless of what underlies the violation, trust in public officials takes a hit.

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