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Good debate or sideshow?

The Claremont Unified School District board unanimously approved a resolution that will require communication with district legal counsel to be funneled through the superintendent, superintendent’s designee or by the board’s majority vote. But the discussion before the approval centered on an alleged Brown Act violation at a board meeting on May 19, 2011.

Board member Steven Llanusa accused Interim Superintendent Gloria Johnston of committing the Brown Act violation at Thursday’s meeting, saying that she discussed a non-agenda item during the May meeting regarding the creation of 2 positions.

“I pointed out that such a discussion violated the Brown Act,” Mr. Llanusa said. “Ms. Johnston tried to justify her discussion by saying it was covered under agenda item III Closed Session A, Conference with Labor Negotiator. During a subsequent discussion of the Brown Act violation by Ms. Johnston, our district council did not recall the May 19, 2011 incident. At that time, I told [Los Angeles County district attorney] Howard Friedman that I’d consult my notes for the purpose of finding information about that violation to refresh his memory.”

Mr. Llanusa went on to say that he requested Ms. Johnston to forward a “demand for correction” based on the May 19, 2011 Brown Act violation accusation to Mr. Friedman on October 6, 2011. The board member said Ms. Johnston refused to do so. From there, Mr. Llanusa claimed he was threatened by Ms. Johnston in an email when she said she would request that a board protocol item be placed on the board meeting agenda in response to him sending seeking further communication with Mr. Friedman.

“This email [from Ms. Johnston] was sent after I had already cc’ed Mr. Friedman the email I’d sent Ms. Johnston,” Mr. Llanusa said. “Further, her use of the future conditional tense in her email now being retroactively applied to a prior communication strikes me as both petty and punitive.”

Mr. Llanusa’s name was noted on the resolution at Thursday’s meeting due to the board member having direct email communication with district legal counsel apart from the a majority board vote or superintendent approval. While Mr. Llanusa believes the resolution was the realization of a threat by Ms. Johnston, the interim superintendent denied the accusation but believes the resolution represented a need for clarification.

“We needed to clarify protocol,” Ms. Johnston told the COURIER. “When we spend money, it needs to be on something really important. It’s important to be careful how our money is spent.”

Ms. Johnston stated that the district attorney’s response to the accusation indicated that there was no reason to pursue further action and create more legal costs.

“I feel it’s very important for me to clear my reputation in terms of me being in charge or violating the Brown Act in closed session,” Ms. Johnston said. “I have in front of me both letters that you have submitted to the district attorney’s office, Mr. Llanusa, and neither of them indicate that a substantial violation of the Brown Act took place.”

Board President Beth Bingham pointed out how the board utilizes legal counsel is important when the superintendent is held responsible for the district budget. The district is billed hourly when using legal services.

She agreed with Ms. Johnston’s suggestion that the district attorney’s response eliminated the need to pursue further action.

“He [district attorney] had some cautions and concerns. So the reason that Ms. Johnston, as I understand it and I agree with this, felt it was unnecessary to forward your notes was because we had already submitted to the district attorney and he had already responded,” Ms. Bingham said. “So it would not be a necessary legal expense to send it on to our lawyers.”

Board Vice President Jeff Stark described Mr. Llanusa’s recollection of the May 19, 2011 meeting as “incorrect.”

“You keep saying there was a Brown Act violation, but clearly the letter from the district attorney does not agree with that,” Mr. Stark said. “So again, Steven, maybe it’s a misinterpretation of what the district attorney is saying. Maybe it’s a misinterpretation of what happened in closed session. But my memory of that session is dramatically different.”

–Landus Rigsby

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