An attorney representing a group of students, faculty, and college donors addressed the Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees Thursday evening with allegations that the board violated an open meetings law in the process of evaluating SBCC President Andreea Serban.
The board ended a closed session on June 8 — their fifth meeting to evaluate Serban — with “no reportable action” on the matter. Take Back SBCC, which formed about a month ago in response to the actions of the four new trustees, moved to make allegations after Trustee Marty Blum revealed in a June 12 article of The Independent that the board would be sending a letter to Serban regarding her evaluation. “Such an action fits within the definition of those things covered in the Brown Act and would have to have been reported at the end of the closed session,” said Robert Ostrove, the attorney representing the group, in a written statement.
The Brown Act prevents undisclosed meetings of public governing bodies by requiring policy discussions and documents be open to the public. Even actions and votes taken in a closed session must be entered into the record. As the board has not met in a closed session since, the allegations offer two possible violations, according to Ostrove: that the board came to a decision on June 8 and failed to report it, or that trustees met informally (and illegally) to write the letter.
“During last year’s election campaign, harsh criticism was directed against Dr. Serban for a ‘lack of transparency’ relative to her decision-making,” said Take Back SBCC president and chemistry professor Ray O’Connor, addressing the board. “I find it more than a little ironic that the trustees who included this charge in their campaigns have resorted to an elaborate scheme to avoid publicly disclosing the results of Dr. Serban’s evaluation.”
The group also released a 16-page letter sent to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, detailing purported “illegal, unethical, and unprofessional actions and behaviors” by the new trustees, which amount to unwanted micromanagement and reaching beyond the shared governance processes of the college.
According to the letter, trustees have attended several meetings of the College Planning Commission, Academic Senate, Continuing Education Consultation Council, and other groups, offering opinions and speaking uninvited. Trustees Lisa Macker and Marsha Croninger reportedly met outside of public meetings to develop a list of alterations to the 2011-12 budget, despite Serban’s insistence that such proposals be discussed through college governance processes. Croninger is charged with making unnecessary and time-consuming requests — a wait list report for every course and section for the last two years, taking 10 hours to prepare some 80 pages — without using the material. The board has also insisted on holding on-campus office hours in the library. “They’re so ‘rogue’ that they do what they want,” said O’Connor.
In a letter to Serban Thursday afternoon, the Accreditation Commission informed the board that it will conduct an investigation of these charges — potential violations of several accreditation standards — in the early fall. Although he doesn’t think the college will lose its accreditation, O’Connor suggested that a failure by the board to act could hurt the college’s reputation and ability to obtain competitive grants and funding.
Take Back SBCC, which is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, is footing its legal bills with the help of “longtime donors of the college” who are unhappy with the board. But, calling Serban one of the “greatest superintendant-presidents we’ve had for years,” O’Connor says the group won’t be happy until they’ve cut out the root of the problem — the four newest trustees.
Despite these allegations, Trustee Marty Blum says she doesn’t see any reason for legal action against the board. According to Blum, the trustees authorized the board president to write up the evaluation letter in a previous open session, and didn’t require any additional disclosure on June 8. “Dr. Haslund felt like he didn’t need to say that, but maybe we needed to,” Blum said. “But it certainly isn’t a violation of anything.”
Blum says members of Take Back SBCC have spoken frequently during public comment sessions but have not accepted invitations to meet one-on-one. “I’m very saddened by it, the idea that this group would go to the accreditation board instead of coming to us,” Blum said.