SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—When Sandra Nichols was elected to the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) Board of Trustees, the long-time educator—known for being well-prepared for meetings—says she made it a point to attend every one.
In her time on the PVUSD board, which lasted from 2000-2012, Nichols says she missed only two.
“I didn’t want to miss a meeting because I didn’t want to get behind in my facts,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a lagger.”
Now serving on the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (SCCOE) Board of Trustees—a position she has held since 2012—Nichols has missed just five meetings.
She says that being chosen by voters to fill the position means making a commitment to be present and participate.
“If you’re an elected official you plan your vacation around the board meetings,” she said. “And I don’t think all elected officials do that.”
The Pajaronian launched an investigation into elected officials’ attendance records after allegations surfaced in February that PVUSD trustee Georgia Acosta has missed 26 meetings since being elected in 2016.
The investigation spans from 2016 to March 2021. In addition to PVUSD, it covers SCCOE, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, the city councils of Watsonville and Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz City School District and the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency (PVWMA).
In researching the issue, the Pajaronian looked at the minutes from every meeting, which typically include a list of attendees and those who were absent. Attendance by Zoom—which became a fixture under Covid-19 restrictions—counted as being present.
In cases where attendance was not provided, absences were shown in the voting records for action items.
The goal of this investigation is not to vilify any official for missing occasional meetings. It was to inform our readers and local voters if there are widespread issues with attendance among local officials, and to find out what, if any, repercussions those with poor records face.
The investigation puts Acosta’s absences at 28, roughly 20% of the meetings she could have attended. This is by far the most absences of any of the 57 elected officials investigated during the four-year period.
Leslie De Rose, who served on the PVUSD Board of Trustees from 2006-2018, missed 14 meetings.
Willie Yahiro, who held his seat on that board from 1990-2018, missed 12.
No other elected official in this investigation had double-digit absences.
The elected body with the best attendance record during the time period is the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, with Ryan Coonerty (2014-present), Bruce McPherson (2016-present) and John Leopold (2008-2020) missing only one meeting each. Greg Caput, who was elected in 2010, has missed two.
It is worth noting that the supervisors are among the only elected leaders in the county with a salary, earning $134,709 annually, plus roughly $30,000 in medical, dental and retirement benefits.
The remainder receive stipends, and some receive benefits.
The PVUSD trustees receive a $400 stipend per month and full medical, dental and vision benefits for themselves and their families, in addition to mileage reimbursement for official business.
SCCOE trustees receive a $200 per month stipend, and can pay for benefits if they choose.
Santa Cruz City Schools trustees receive $240 per month.
Santa Cruz City Council members receive $1,710.35 per month, while the mayor gets $3,420.69 monthly. These stipends include a $350 transportation allowance, and up to $510 annually for expenses incurred while on duty.
Watsonville City Council members, according to the most recent budget, make about $620 per month in regular salaries and wages. That does not include a stipend for telephone service as well as a $1,500 yearly allowance for travel and other costs.
Balancing life, service
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend has never missed a meeting, even attending the one that occurred the day after his son was born. He left two meetings early, he says, to attend events related to the position.
“While the role of an elected official is expansive, it’s hard to imagine a more important role than showing up to vote,” Friend stated in an email. “Ultimately, the voters are affording you the privilege of representing their voice and their values and the key way you do that is through attending and voting at these public meetings.”
Watsonville City Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada has missed two meetings since being elected in 2018. He missed a meeting in 2019 because it fell on the day his late grandfather was buried. He missed another meeting last year shortly after his daughter was born.
Estrada says his absence last year “hurt” him because it was the day the City Council was weighing an emergency moratorium for Covid-19-related evictions. His vote would’ve allowed the moratorium to pass on the initial roll call—it eventually passed in an end-of-meeting reconsideration.
Still, Estrada says it was the right thing to do for his family. A few days before his absence, he attended a special meeting related to a lawsuit against the city, but quickly found out that it was the wrong decision.
“I said ‘let this be my pilot meeting, see how it goes,’” he said about the special meeting. “It was just a bad mistake to even try it.”
But Estrada has not missed since. He says the Zoom meetings have given him flexibility. He can often be seen taking notes, and listening to staff and the public while rocking his daughter to sleep during meetings that go late into the night.
“Technology has sort of allowed me to multitask,” he said. “I have to take care of the family, and I have to take care of the city, too. It’s helped.”
De Rose says that several family members died during the time covered by this story, including a niece, step-father, her mother and her uncle, several of whom had long, drawn-out illnesses.
Other times she attended required conferences for work, she said.
While she says she does not second-guess her decision to put family first, she still kept up with the board business during those times, and stayed in touch with the superintendent. Often, she gave her fellow board members statements to be read at the meetings she missed.
“I want the public to understand that life stuff happens, and I really did my best to stay on top of what my duties were,” she said. “I was elected to represent my community, and no matter what happens with your personal life—the same with work—you still have a responsibility, and I met that responsibility to the best of my abilities.”
Longtime PVWMA board member Amy Newell, who has missed only two meetings since 2016, takes an “old fashioned” approach. When the board sets its annual meeting schedule, she writes the dates into her appointment book.
“To the extent that it’s possible, I then plan the rest of my life around those meetings,” she wrote in an email.
Newel, 73, says that she would not be on the PVWMA board if she didn’t believe in the work the agency is doing.
“And I think it helps that I really like my fellow directors, agency staff and our consultants, and enjoy working with all of them to push our work forward,” she wrote.
Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers, who has served on the Santa Cruz City Council since 2018, agrees that elected officials have a duty to be present.
“I think that’s your job,” she said. “If you’re elected by your constituents, the expectation is that you participate and represent them and that’s basically done through being at meetings and showing up and participating.”
But that is complicated, she says, by the fact that many elected officials also have their own full-time careers to balance with the elected offices, the majority of which are essentially volunteer positions.
A pattern of egregious conduct should be addressed, Meyers says, but imposing sanctions could be a disincentive for people considering running for the positions.
Imposing sanctions—or addressing absenteeism in other ways—is entirely up to the elected bodies, since almost none of the boards investigated in this story appear to have any policies in place that govern attendance by elected officials, or that outlines possible punishments.
The PVUSD Board of Trustees censured Acosta on March 24 for missing so many meetings, along with several other allegations. But such actions are rare. Former trustee Yahiro says he saw one action during that time against a trustee, not related to absenteeism.
Dana Sales, who served on the SCCOE Board of Trustees for 28 years, says that members could face censure and removal after missing three meetings in a row without notification, but added that he never saw that happen during his time on the board.
Sales says that he missed about one meeting per year, even then only to participate in life events such as graduations.
“I consider being elected a public trust, and I put it above everything else except my family,” he said.
The Santa Cruz City Council’s handbook lays out several rules of decorum during meetings, but it does not specifically address attendance, nor does the Watsonville City Council’s Code of Ethics or city charter.
Similarly, Santa Cruz County Code outlines the duties and responsibilities for supervisors, and details their supervisorial districts. But the code does not address attendance.
Supervisors can censure those who miss too many times, said County Spokesman Jason Hoppin, adding that it is the voters that have the ultimate authority to address egregious behavior during election time.
The same is true for the Santa Cruz City Schools Board of Education.
In some cases, officials lose their stipend for missed meetings, Nichols says. But ultimately, it is the boards themselves—and the voters who elected them—that are tasked with policing their attendance at public meetings.
By the numbers
Below is the total number and percentage of meetings that these local elected officials have missed since January 2016 until March 2021. Some have been in office before the 2016 cutoff. This investigation did not take those meetings into account.
PVUSD Board of Trustees | Total: 135 meetings
- Lupe Rivas (time in office 2012-2016): 3 meetings missed (2.2% of possible meetings)
- Kim De Serpa (2010-present): 4 (2.9%)
- Karen Osmundson (2004-2020): 6 (4.4%)
- Jeff Ursino (2010-2018): 6 (4.4%)
- Willie Yahiro (1990-2018): 12 (8.8%)
- Leslie De Rose (2006-2018): 14 (10.3%)
- Daniel Dodge, Jr. (2018-present): 4 (2.9%)
- Jennifer Schacher (2018-present): 5 (3.7%)
- Georgia Acosta (2016-present): 28 (20.7%)
- Jennifer Holm (2016-present): 1 (0.7%)
- Maria Orozco (2012-present): 6 (4.4%)
Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors | Total: 177 meetings
- Ryan Coonerty (2014-present): 1 (0.5%)
- Bruce McPherson (2016-present): 1 (0.5%)
- John Leopold (2008-2020): 1 (0.5%)
- Greg Caput (2010-present): 2 (1.1%)
- Zach Friend (2012-present): 0 (0%)
Santa Cruz City Council | Total: 162 meetings
- Chris Krohn (1999-2003, 2017-2020): 8 (4.9%)
- David Terrazas (2010-2018): 3 (1.85%)
- Pamela Comstock (2012-2018): 1 (0.61%)
- Cynthia Chase (2012-2018): 5 (3.0%)
- Martine Watkins (2016-present): 1 (0.61%)
- Richelle Noroyan (2014-2018): 4 (2.4%)
- Drew Glover (2016-2020): 3 (1.85%)
- Donna Myers (2018-present): 1 (0.61%)
Santa Cruz County Office of Education Board of Trustees | Total: 86 meetings
- Bruce Van Allen (2018-present): 1 (1.1%)
- Ed Acosta (2020-present): 2 (2.3%)
- Abel Sanchez (2014-present): 6 (6.9%)
- Sandra Nichols (2012-present): 5 (5.8%)
- Jane Barr (2012-present): 8 (9.3%)
- Dana Sales (1992-2020): 3 (3.4%)
- George Winslow (2008-2020): 5 (5.8%)
- Jack Dilles (2006-2016): 2 (2.3%)
Santa Cruz City Schools | Total: 127 meetings
- Deedee Perez-Granados (2014-present): 9 (7.0%)
- Sheila Coonerty (2012-present): 8 (6.2%)
- John Owen (2020-present): 2 (1.5%)
- Jeremy Shonick (2014-present): 11 (8.6%)
- Claudia Vestal (2008-2012): 3 (2.3%)
- Deb Tracy-Proulx (2010-present): 4 (3.1%)
- Patty Threet (2012-present): 2 (1.5%)
- Allisun Thompson (2014-2017): 3 (2.3%)
- Cindi Ranii (2017-present): 4 (3.1%)
Watsonville City Council | Total: 97 meetings
- Francisco Estrada (2018-present): 2 (4%)
- Ari Parker (2018-present): 1 (2%)
- Felipe Hernandez (2012-2020): 3 (3%)
- Nancy Bilicich (2009-2018): 3 (2.9%)
- Trina Coffman-Gomez (2012-2020): 5 (5.1%)
- Jimmy Dutra (2014-2018 & 2021-present): 6 (8.3%)
- Lowell Hurst (1989-1998 & 2011-present): 2 (2%)
- Rebecca J. Garcia (2014-present): 3 (3%)
- Aurelio Gonzalez (2018-present): 2 (3.3%)
- Oscar Rios (1989-2000, 2004-2008, 2012-2018): 1 (3.4%)
Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency | Total: 68 meetings
- Amy Newell (2013-present): 2 (2.9%)
- Stephen Rider (2020-present): 0 (0%)
- Mary Bannister (2019-present): 1 (3.7%)
- Bob Culbertson (2017-present): 3 (5.8%)
- Dwight Lynn (2014-2018): 9 (22.5%)
Accuracy & accountability
The Pajaronian made every effort to accurately report the data contained within this report. However, as with any investigation involving voluminous amounts of data, inaccuracies are possible. If any are found, contact this newspaper at 761-7353. Contact author Tony Nuñez at [email protected] or Todd Guild at [email protected]
The data is readily available at:
- Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees: bit.ly/2QWwpfA
- Santa Cruz County Office of Education: bit.ly/3nX2eRn
- Santa Cruz City Council: bit.ly/3eqc0IG
- Santa Cruz City Schools: sccs.net/board_of_education
- Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors: bit.ly/3tsmZWb
- Watsonville City Council: bit.ly/33B6pJa
- Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency: bit.ly/3y2O1a1
[This story has been modified to include the total time in office for Watsonville City Council members. — Editor]