Trustee appointment spurs gripe, special election petition

Trustees unanimously endorsed Superintendent Gary McIntire's plans for Calaveras School at this week's meeting.

At least two residents alleged Hollister School District trustees violated the Brown Act when they appointed a trustee to a vacant position on the board in a quick vote without explaining their decisions or discussing candidates in public. Their opposition to the appointment has led to efforts for a possible special election, too.
Board members voted 3-1 last month in favor of appointing Mike Baldwin to a vacant position to replace former Board President Ben Flores without discussing the pros and cons of various candidates after an almost 20-minute conversation about the appointment process, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by the Free Lance. Trustee Peter Hernandez cast the dissenting vote.
Under the Brown Act—an open meetings law that forces government officials to notify the public of meeting times and subjects up for discussion or action—trustees had to give notice that they were going to take a vote, provide materials they relied on that were provided in the meeting, and hold the vote in public.
“But they don’t have to necessarily explain themselves,” said Nikki Moore, the staff attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
Moore pondered the decision making process, though.
“The thing that I would wonder about, I guess, is if they could come to a meeting having had no other meeting on this topic and simply vote, where did the decision making and the discussion occur?” she said.
Board President Elizabeth Martinez could not be reached for comment. Superintendent Gary McIntire emphasized that trustees did not discuss candidates in closed session and that if a topic was not on the agenda, then they didn’t talk about it.
“I would be very, very surprised if board members are speaking with each other outside of a social meeting or something, which is allowable,” he said. “That’s a pretty heavy allegation.”
Candidate Brianna Tavares and her mother, Monica Rodriguez, have alleged in email and phone conversations with the Free Lance that trustees violated the Brown Act because they did not discuss candidates prior to the vote or explain their decisions after it during the recent public meeting.
While the Brown Act doesn’t require trustees to explain their votes or discuss candidates, deliberation on the appointment topic had to be done in open session at public meetings. Any conversation about candidates between board members outside of the meeting or during closed session would be a violation of the act.
“It was just weird how they talked for about 30 minutes about deliberating and then not deliberating and how it all panned out in the vote,” Tavares said. “It kind of seemed like they had already made a decision.”
During the meeting in which the trustee position was filled, Hernandez made a motion for Tavares to fill the role, which died for a lack of a second, according to a recording of the meeting. Trustee Pat Moore then gave a motion for Baldwin to fill the vacancy. Trustee Elsa Rodriguez seconded that motion and it passed 3-1 with Hernandez voting “no.”
Baldwin reacted to the disappointment in his appointment.
“To do this job, I guess I got to have a pretty thick skin,” Baldwin said. “To the best of my knowledge there’s no violation. It was a vote that each member voted on. Whether it was quick or not, I guess was a matter of judgment, but it was done in a correct way.”
In the three weeks since the vote, community members have started a petition asking for a special election. Hollister resident Marie Catinella also wrote a letter to the editor in support of Tavares, who previously ran for the position in November 2014, but was not elected. Catinella spoke in favor of the candidate during the meeting where a new trustee was selected, according to recording of the meeting obtained by the Free Lance.
Community members must collect at least 265 qualified signatures—or 1.5 percent of the registered voters of the district at the time of the last election of board members—to force a special election, said Angela Curro, the assistant county clerk-recorder-registrar of voters.
A petition with enough verified signatures nullifies the provisional appointment made by the board and calls for a special election, Curro explained. In a recall election, a proponent formally writes up why a person is being recalled. This is published in a newspaper, and a different percentage of signatures is collected, she said. 
The cost of a special election for the district is estimated at $126,000, but the actual cost of the most recent one for a measure in 2011 was $146,316, according to an email from Curro. That estimate does not include any potential costs to the county superintendent of schools, she added in a phone conversation with the Free Lance.
McIntire stressed that a special election would happen in February or March and added it would be a lot of taxpayer money to pay when the very seat community members are petitioning for would be up for re-election later that year in November 2016. Curro clarified that if a special election was held, it could take place as late as the end of April.
The board chose not to deliberate in front of the candidates during the original meeting because they were sitting in front of them, McIntire said.
“The board is conducting a job interview in public with all the candidates sitting there in front of them,” he said. “It’s a pretty awkward situation.”
But Trustee Peter Hernandez argued that hurt feelings weren’t the highest priority at the meeting.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings but my job isn’t to worry about that. It’s to worry about handling the public trust,” the trustee said.
Hernandez told the Free Lance this week that he questioned the decision to vote without talking about the reasons behind board members’ selections. Trustees decided which candidate they wanted to support through silent deliberation; then made motions, which could be seconded; and finally the topic went to the board for a vote.
“I didn’t understand why we weren’t going to actually deliberate (out loud),” he said. “That was my question.”

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