For roughly six days, Grace Malson was a member of the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District board of trustees. For one hour on Wednesday, she wasn’t. But by the end of that hour, her position had been restored and not much had changed.
In a rare move, the board held a special meeting Wednesday specifically to address a violation of the Brown Act at their Dec. 8 meeting.
Five candidates were interviewed for a seat on the board left open by former trustee Jennifer Collier. They included Malson, former high school trustee Patrick Maple, retired Galt police officer William Hogan, Galt resident Hillary Crownover, and former elementary trustee Robert Ellis.
When resident Al Baldwin asked to address the candidates last week, he was denied by board president John Gordon. Malson was unanimously appointed to the job.
But it turns out that blocking a member of the public from commenting during the allotted time is a violation of California’s open meeting law, also known as the Brown Act.
The board decided to make amends by holding a new special meeting.
“How you operated violated the Brown Act, plain and simple,” Maple said Wednesday.
Each candidate was contacted by Superintendent Karen Schauer about the special meeting. Only Malson and Maple appeared.
“I’m just rolling with the punches,” Malson said before the meeting.
The board had one objective in mind.
“The goal tonight is to correct a misunderstanding regarding public comment,” board president John Gordon said at the beginning of the meeting.
The first step was to rescind Malson’s appointment and re-open the floor to comments from the candidates, the public and the board.
Maple spoke first, reading from a prepared statement directed at Gordon.
“These meetings are not intended to provide the board with time to speak,” he said. “They are to provide the public with time to speak. You should always fall on the side of hearing more, not less.”
Maple said he did not call for a new meeting in an effort to change the outcome of last week’s appointment. Instead, he wanted to highlight the board’s mistake.
“My opinion is that you should have known the rules. You obviously do not. That is against the law,” Maple said.
Gordon could not be reached for comment before moving into an unrelated closed session meeting.
He also addressed comments Gordon made publicly regarding letters to the editor and blog posts written by Maple that have been published in the News-Sentinel and on the newspaper’s website.
“You didn’t ask me, could I check my ego at the door? Yes. I did it for 14 years,” said Maple, referring to his time on the high school board. “Do you? I don’t think you do. You did not give me the benefit of the doubt. You brought your prejudice with you.”
Malson did not speak for the duration of the meeting.
A chain of public speakers made it clear that Gordon’s misstep would not be tolerated.
“A person who has that ability to speak up would be an asset to your board, especially in these trying economic times,” said Dennis Richardson, who spent four of his six years on the high school board serving with Maple. Richardson felt it is in appropriate to address a person’s character in an open meeting.
Baldwin also took advantage of the opportunity to address the board.
“I want to clear the air,” he said, introducing his two part question. “Do you realize you don’t have to pick someone; it’s not forced on you?”
Baldwin felt it might have been more appropriate for the board to conduct the candidate interviews behind closed doors. His second question was whether board members receive training on ethics and following the Brown Act.
Trustee Susan Richardson said board members receive training on those issues. “The problem is that we’re people and we don’t remember everything,” she said.
She is married to Dennis Richardson, who spoke at the meeting.
Baldwin suggested the meeting move public comment about items not on the agenda to the beginning of each meeting, so parents with concerns can address the board without having to wait hours.
“You’ve got to listen. That’s the key right there: Listen,” he said.
The final public comment came from Gene Davenport, who ran for city council last year.
“I think you guys have really botched this,” he said, adding that the board owed each candidate an apology. “They didn’t deserve what happened last week.”
Board members did their best to address the aired grievances.
“The public can fill out a card to comment. We considered that to be sufficient opportunity. There was some opinion that it wasn’t and we needed to take the extra step,” Kevin Papineau said. He also explained that the Brown Act requires interviews for appointments and elections to be conducted in a public meeting.
Schauer clarified that there is a public comment period for each specific agenda item, as well as a time allotted for items not on the agenda. She apologized for the board’s mistake.
“There are things I could have done that night so we wouldn’t be having this meeting,” she said.
When the audience completed their comments Wednesday, Gordon was cautious in moving forward. Board members and candidates were asked repeatedly if they had any comments to share.
When Richardson asked her peers if they needed to discuss the item on the special agenda — appointing a provisional candidate — Gordon, Papineau and board member Wesley Cagle shook their heads.
“I guess we don’t need to discuss, then,” she said.
In the end, the board voted again. The result was unanimous.
After the meeting, Maple and Baldwin said they were satisfied with how it played out.
“They did what they were supposed to do,” said Maple.
Baldwin thinks the board could use a refresher course on the Brown Act.
“The actions determine the training. If they had training, it didn’t show,” he said. “The pressure they are under right now is tremendous, so they need to have that down.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.