Around 6:45 this morning, four of five members of Santa Barbara’s school board were photographed together at a cozy Cajun Kitchen breakfast, raising questions of whether they violated California’s iconic open meeting law on Election Day.
The Ragin’ Cajuns, who sat down together at the restaurant on De La Vina after an early morning Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operation included: Ismael Ulloa, an appointed incumbent who is on the ballot, plus board chair Jackie Reid; vice-chair Wendy Sims-Moten and Kate Parker, all Dems supporting his election to the non-partisan office. Rounding out the party was Eder Gaona-Macedo, who is Ulloa’s campaign manager.
California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, aimed at guaranteeing the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies like the school board, places broad restrictions on local officials meeting together without public notice and discussing “business of a specific nature under the body’s jurisdiction.”
However, it also provides an exemption allowing members to meet for “social or ceremonial events” where no such business is discussed.
This being a small town and all, it didn’t take long for the image of four incumbents huddling on Decision Day for a hotly contested race for two seats on the school board to rebound swiftly across the internets in Santa Barbara.
The politics of perception. Amid in-the-weeds buzz about specific provisions of the Brown Act, Newsmakers pondered a less legal, but equally important question about politics and the optics of perception:
At the end of a campaign featuring complaints about the lack of transparency at the school board, WTF were they thinking?
Reid and Sims-Moten did not respond to requests for comment, but Ulloa and Parker (who’s going off the board but was on Tuesday’s ballot running for City College trustee) insisted there was no substantive discussion of, you know, schools or education issues at the table.
"The Brown Act allows board members to meet socially, as long we don't discuss school board business, which we weren't," Ish told us. "It's election day, we were discussing the election. The picture you attached proves we weren't meeting privately, it was out in the open."
“We were talking about the election,” Parker agreed. “We’re allowed to meet for social reasons, as long as we don’t discuss board business."
But school board candidate Mark Alvarado begged to differ, saying that if the super-majority of the school board did not violate the letter of the Brown Act, they clearly flouted its spirit:
“At the end of the day, it just looks unethical,” Alvarado told us. “It really highlights the problem of transparency at the school district.”
The expert speaks. Jim Ewert is General Counsel of the California News Publishers Association, and one of the state’s leading authorities on the Brown Act.
In an interview during which we relayed the basic facts of what happened, he said the crucial issue in determining whether the four had violated the Brown Act was the subject matter of their conversation which, of course, is known only to them and that's their story and they're sticking to it.
"What’s interesting is – what was the discussion about?” Ewert said. “To the extent that their conversation started to delve into matters within the subject matter jurisdiction of the school board, it could fall within the parameters of the Brown Act,” he told us.
He added, however, that if the four discussed “purely political items,” it likely would not violate the Brown Act.
It sure would violate the Common Sense Act, however.
There were no injuries.
For the record: Lauren Bianchi Klemann, spokesperson for the district, referred us to SBUSD’s Board Bylaws 9320, which permits members to congregate for “a purely social or ceremonial occasion.”
Image: L-R: Ismael Ulloa, Kate Parker, Jackie Reid, Wendy Sims-Moten, Eder Gaona-Macedo (Courtesy photo).