ENCINITAS — An Encinitas Union School District management team retreat in Palm Springs that four school board members attended violated the state’s open meeting laws, political reform experts said.
Parents and residents have criticized the school district for the trip to the high-end La Quinta Resort near Palm Springs, which they said was wasteful spending.
But recently, local residents also began to question how board members comprising a supermajority of the district’s five-member governing body could attend the retreat without notifying the public, a requirement of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which protects the public’s right to open meetings.
School Superintendent Timothy Baird has argued that the trip did not need to be noticed publicly because it was a managerial retreat, and board members had nothing to do with the trip’s agenda or planning and did not discuss or deliberate on action within their jurisdiction.
Two experts in the state’s open meeting laws, however, said none of that matters — the fact that a majority of the board was present at the retreat triggered the public noticing requirements.
“It’s a blatant violation of the Brown Act,” said Cory Briggs, a San Diego municipal law attorney who has sued cities across Southern California over open meeting violations.
Briggs’ comments came after reading an email thread between Baird and Terry Francke, the general counsel for Californians Aware, an open government watchdog group. Francke became involved at the behest of Lynn Marr, an Encinitas resident who initially called on Baird to release minutes from the retreat.
Francke said in his email to Baird that if Marr accurately quoted his justification, he had an “astonishingly deficient grasp of the Brown Act.”
“Dr. Baird, when the majority of a local legislative body attends a meeting dealing with its agency’s issues, even though it may neither discuss nor act upon matters connected with those issues, its mere presence to obtain information presented at the meeting is sufficient to trigger the open meeting requirement of the Brown Act,” Francke wrote.
Briggs said the school district could face litigation and a judge could compel it to disclose the details of the retreat if it doesn’t voluntarily remedy the violation.
Baird, reached Wednesday, said he would review Francke’s emails this weekend, but stands by his belief that the district did not violate the Brown Act.
“I go back to the spirit of the Brown Act, which is to stop boards from meeting in secret to discuss items that are within their legislative purview,” he said. “This was not the case with this retreat.”
Baird said that board majorities are frequently present at functions, such as Back to School Night, which is not open to the public.
“I don’t think anyone sees Back to School Night as a violation of the Brown Act,” Baird said. “Again, it goes back to the spirit of the open meeting laws.”
This story has been updated since its last posting.