WATSONVILLE — The Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office is looking into an allegation that five members of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees violated open meeting laws by gathering informally late last year.
Bill Beecher, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board in the Nov. 6 election, filed a complaint on Jan. 11, alleging that the trustees violated the Ralph M. Brown Act.
That act is a strict set of rules which, among other things, prohibits gatherings of a majority of board members outside of open, publicized meetings.
While normal complaint procedures call for bringing the complaint directly to the board, Beecher said he declined to do so because five out of seven members were named in the complaint.
“I might as well go directly with the D.A.,” he said.
Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Bill Atkinson said the office has received the complaint, and that it is waiting for a response from all interested parties before making a decision to pursue it.
Nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted for a violation of the Brown Act, according to the First Amendment Coalition.
In the complaint, Beecher alleges that trustees Georgia Acosta and Karen Osmundson met with newly-elected members Jennifer Holm, Jennifer Schacher and Daniel Dodge Jr. During that meeting, the trustees reportedly discussed appointing Osmundson as board president, a position she had not held in her 12 years on the board.
The board later appointed Osmundson as president during the Dec. 12 meeting.
During the Jan. 16 Board of Trustees meeting, Beecher said he would withdraw his complaint if Acosta stepped down from the board.
In a Dec. 13 interview with the Pajaronian, Osmundson confirmed that the meeting occurred, and characterized it as an informal breakfast gathering between herself, Holm and Acosta. Dodge and Schacher showed up later, she said.
During that meeting, Osmundson said, the topic of her presidency came up, although the trustees did not discuss any other board business.
During the trustee comment period of the Jan. 16 board meeting, Acosta strongly rejected the allegations.
“There has been no violation of the Brown Act, or of any other law by anyone, and I do want the public record to reflect this fact,” Acosta said.
Acosta described the meeting as a “brief social gathering” that occurred at Coffeeville at about 3 p.m. on Nov. 27, a meeting she said she now regrets.
“It was obviously misconstrued and mischaracterized,” she said. “Such an unfounded suggestion undermines public confidence in this board and in each one of us as elected officials.”
Acosta added that she has consulted an attorney who has “extensive experience” in both elections law and the Brown Act.
“He has provided me with an opinion letter on this subject, confirming that no violation of the Brown Act took place,” Acosta said.
In a Jan. 4 letter to the Pajaronian, Holm stated that she believed the Brown Act applied only after the election was certified.
“Even so, I was mindful of appearances,” Holm wrote. “In retrospect, I can see where I may have erred.”
Later, Holm said she told the group it was important for the board members to treat each other with respect.
“… and I urged Ms. Osmundson that if she became board president, she promote courteous behavior and a collaborative environment,” Holm said. “Though my focus was on respect and civility, I take full responsibility for mentioning that she wanted to be president outside of a private conversation. I will not make that error again.”