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EDUHSD: Trustees at odds over Grand Jury findings

By From page A1 | June 17, 2015

The El Dorado Union High School District Board of Trustees responded to the El Dorado County Grand Jury’s “A School Bell Rings Off-Key” report but the discussion was anything but unanimous.

The Grand Jury report released in May states the longest-serving board member, Timothy Cary, acted with a conflict of interest and is primarily responsible for the board’s Brown Act violations.

The responses to the three findings and four recommendations often got heated at the June 9 board meeting, with Trustees Cary, Dave Del Rio and Lori Veerkamp disagreeing with all findings while board president Kevin Brown partially agreed at times and Todd White mostly sided with the Grand Jury.

Findings

1. The El Dorado Union High School District has, for a number of years, operated outside the clear intent of the Ralph M. Brown Act.

When Cary was board president, the findings state, he exercised strict control over the agenda for board meetings. He imposed a rule requiring three board members to agree that an item merited discussion before it could be placed on the agenda. That made it virtually impossible for a fellow board member or parent to place an issue on the board agenda — a violation of Education Code § 35145.5.

White agreed there were Brown Act violations. “I tried to put the high school boundary issue on the agenda for years and I was told by Mr. Cary that I would need three board members to expend resources,” he said. “All I wanted was the chance to propose the item and it was continually denied by former superintendent Chris Hoffman and Mr. Cary. To get three votes before (getting an item on the agenda) is denying the public. It took getting Kevin Brown in the president’s seat to get the boundary issue on the agenda.”

“I disagree we can ask for staff time and resources for any item,” Cary said.

“I wasn’t asking for staff time; I was asking for discussion,” White shot back. “That was a violation.”

Brown took personal umbrage by the claim violations have happened during his tenure. “I took training (on the Brown Act),” he said. “I can guarantee you it’s never once happened in the three years since I was elected board president.”

“Never once in my three years did a member of the public ask me to put something on the agenda and it didn’t happen,” he added

“It was not followed properly in the past, but this (report) was done a month ago,” Brown continued. “We should all know the Brown Act and should do another Brown Act training.”

2. Timothy Cary, a long-time member of the EDUHSD board of trustees, has wielded too much influence over the board and is primarily responsible for its deviation from strict adherence to the Ralph M. Brown Act.

“Give us examples,” Brown said. “When? How? This wasn’t worded well. It would have been more helpful if they were more specific.”

“I take offense to them saying it’s been happening,” Cary said, describing the report as leaving him “blindsided” and saying it’s affected his reputation and his ability to earn a living as an attorney.

“The Grand Jury never even interviewed me,” Cary said. “Isn’t that my job — to give my opinion supported by logic and facts in the best interest of kids? This was a misuse of the Grand Jury.”

“I’ve sat on this board the longest with Mr. Cary,” Veerkamp added. “And I never saw him yield too much influence.”

“No. 2 is a repetition of No. 1,” White said. “The only influence (Cary) had is not putting something on the agenda.”

“I partially agree because it may have happened in the past but it hasn’t happened in the past three years,” Brown said.

3. Mr. Cary, an experienced school law attorney, has confused his participation on the EDUHSD board of trustees with his professional career, to the detriment of the district.

Specifically, the report states: “Numerous witnesses complained that Mr. Cary has a conflict of interest. While acting as member of the El Dorado Union High School District Board of Trustees he has simultaneously acted as unofficial legal counsel to the district. They stated that Mr. Cary argues that the other board members should follow his advice, citing his expertise as an experienced education law attorney. They asserted that his opinions are too often offered under the guise of legal counsel.”

“I haven’t let Mr. Cary do anything to the detriment to the district,” Brown said.

“I don’t appreciate it when you use legal mumbo jumbo and talk down to other board members,” White said to Cary. “I think you think you’re smarter than other people. Like saying I don’t have the mental capacity to understand certain issues.”

“I’m upset because I’ve been slandered,” Cary said. “I have a right to the freedom of speech. Being an attorney is not on the list of prohibitive subjects. If that’s a conflict of interest there’s no such thing as someone who doesn’t have a conflict of interest. The people I served with (on the EDUHSD board) during my 25 years were not meek and mild. To command resources if less than three people want an item on the agenda … I don’t want to keep administrators running around with their heads cut off.”

Recommendations

1. The El Dorado Union High School District Board of Trustees should contract for training its members in the requirements of the Ralph M. Brown Act. That training should be conducted by an attorney other than Mr. Cary and not an employee of the EDUHSD and should be held at an open meeting of the Board of Trustees with all members of the board and appropriate staff in attendance.

2. The EDUHSD Board of Trustees should formally adopt procedures for the conduct of their meetings immediately. Those procedures must conform to the requirements of the Ralph M. Brown Act. They should be adopted at an open meeting of the board, after both notice to the public and an opportunity for the members of the public to comment on the proposed procedures prior to their adoption.

Regarding recommendations 1 and 2, an annual Brown Act training for all board members was unanimously accepted as a good idea. After Brown Act training, Brown suggested updating the high school district’s bylaws to reflect the Brown Act guidelines.

 

3. Mr. Cary should separate his professional role as an education law attorney from his role as a member of the EDUHSD Board of Trustees.

“We have nothing to do with that,” Brown said. “We can’t tell you (Cary) to separate your professional career from this board. That’s your personal decision.”

“We can’t do anything as a board,” White said, “but I think one example that’s completely inappropriate is using (current superintendent) Steve Wehr as a professional reference. You oversee his performance and salary; of course he’s going to give you a positive reference.”

“An argument could be made that is a conflict of interest,” Brown said. “Our response to No. 3 is the recommendation is not in our jurisdiction.”

4. Each member of the EDUHSD Board of Trustees should recognize his or her own responsibility for the decisions and actions of the board. No one member is entitled to deference not given to other members.

“We are each responsible for own actions,” Brown said. “We agree with the statement.”

Julie Samrick

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