The backlash from the controversial July 17 raise awarded to Citrus College superintendent/president Geraldine Perri took a new turn Oct. 1, when open-government advocate Gil Aguirre filed suit against the Board of Trustees.
Aguirre, a San Dimas resident, alleged that the board violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, which establishes policies for meetings of all California-elected officials. He sent a letter to the five-member board demanding the board rescind the raise, provide detailed accounts of all closed sessions involving Perri’s salary and admission of wrongdoing.
In response, the board sent a letter of their own to Aguirre that refutes the claims.
Aguirre’s letter, sent one month after the raise was approved, cites California Government Code Section 54957, the portion of the Brown Act which states “Closed sessions held pursuant to this subdivision shall not include discussion or action on proposed compensation.”
The board’s response letter was delivered to Aguirre Sept. 14 and also cites the Brown Act, but said Aguirre was misinterpreting the law.
“However, your letter fails to recognize that Government Code section 54957.6 does authorize legislative bodies to meet in closed session for the purpose of giving instruction to their representatives with respect to the negotiation of compensation,” the letter states.
That wasn’t sufficient for Aguirre, who filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court via his counsel, Kelly Aviles. Aviles is the vice president for open government compliance at the nonprofit government advocacy group, Californians Aware. She previously assisted Aguirre in a successful Brown Act suit against the Pomona Unified School District.
“Yes, there is a section where they could designate a negotiator to directly negotiate with Dr. Perri at some other point in time, but that’s not what they did,” Aviles said. “No matter what points the public brought up, it wouldn’t have mattered because they already made their decision.”
In addition to the suit’s allegations of wrongdoing, Aviles and Aguirre say the board mishandled public disclosure of information regarding Perri’s raise and housing allowance, providing agenda information for the disabled and ad-hoc committee meetings.
“[The board’s] numerous violations of the Brown Act . . . evidence a pattern and practice of ignoring the state’s open meeting laws,” reads the suit. “Because legal counsel for the Board has stated that the Board’s prior actions did not constitute violations of the Brown Act, it is likely the Board will continue to violate the Brown Act in the future.”
In addition to Aguirre’s original demands, the suit now requests the court to compel the board to improve its description of agenda items, release all votes on all actions and to record all meetings of closed sessions for a three-year period.
Aviles and Aguirre have also taken the stance that Perri is not without blame for the Brown Act violations. A media statement listing Perri’s various achievements released during the July 17 meeting was printed on board letterhead.
That became an object of contention during the meeting, as board president Joanne Montgomery admitted that she and Perri were responsible for the drafting of the statement. None of the other board members saw the statement prior to its release.
“If, as president Montgomery suggested, the Board collectively discussed the matter, either directly or through an intermediary, prior to the meeting such actions would constitute a Brown Act violation,” Aguirre says in the original demand letter.
“She should have known in her role as superintendent that was a violation of the Brown Act,” Aviles said. “She was involved in making the contract, she should have known it was illegal . . . it should be ruled null and void.”
As of press time, the board has not responded to the suit. They have 30 days to file a response in court.
“It’s just really unfortunate that this group of elected officials— these people that are entrusted to wisely spend our money—find it totally accept to cook up these secret deals, in private, and keep them out of the view of the public,” Aguirre said. “It’s just really a case of nobody paying attention. The few people that have asked questions are basically being dismissed and not being told what’s going on. Nobody’s digging, and it looks like it’s time.”
The board of trustees was served with notice of the suit during their Oct. 2 meeting. Montgomery had no comment on the issue.