High & Low Dudgeons, Hidden Agendas, & Bad Vibes Generally
by Mark Scaramella, August 26, 2010
Wednesday night’s Community Services District meeting at the Boonville Firehouse was uncharacteristically testy, and grew testier as the evening wore on as trustees traded verbal jabs with each other and aimed a couple of body blows at Fire Chief Colin Wilson.
The first skirmish arose when the Recreation Committee proposed a “playgroup” at the preschool at The Elementary School. (The Anderson Valley tends to the utilitarian. The elementary school is called The Elementary School, the high school Anderson Valley High School. Scissors, rock, paper.)
The playgroup would be conducted by a local woman celebrated for her childcare abilities. This mega-mom would provide childcare for the tots of several younger teachers while instructing other younger mothers in the fine points of child rearing, all of it seemingly innocuous.
Trustee Andrea LaCampagne, however, said that although she was in favor of the class, providing insurance for it under the auspices of the Recreation Committee at no cost to the enterprise seemed like “subterfuge for somebody's private childcare business.” Ms. LaCampagne suggested that if the Recreation Committee was going to provide the insurance coverage the playgroup should be open to the public and more thoroughly described as to what exactly it intended to provide, and maybe be more specific about the days and hours.
When Board Chair Diane Paget called for the vote on insuring the class, the two votes in favor were Paget's and Director Kathleen McKenna's. Directors Kirk Wilder, Valerie Hanelt apparently agreeing with LaCampagne, abstained, all three abstentions in this context being equivalent to no votes.
Paget then somewhat irritably suggested that LaCampagne speak to Elementary School principal Donna Pierson-Pugh about her concerns and come back to the board next month with, presumably, a better idea of what was what. But the class, it seems, has already begun, running from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon three or four days a week. Ms. LaCampagne said she thought that it sounded like an ordinary childcare operation.
Ms. Paget explained that the program was the creation of Elementary School Principal Donna Pierson-Pugh to compensate for the school’s loss of funding for the “Even Start” program, which itself was descended from “HeadStart.” One might think that since the daycare facility is located on school grounds the school district would ensure it; but the “class” is actually a “playgroup” presided over by non-teachers and that somehow presents a problem.
Airport manager Kirk Wilder reported that Boonville International's open house was a big success, although attendance was down a bit. Wilder also reported that the Airport was sitting on unsold hay that had cost $2700 to bale. In years past one person bought all of it, but that customer declined this year. If you're looking for fresh windswept hay, call Wilder (895-2949) or Jim Nickless (895-2811).
The Recreation Committee reported that local phone book sales are slower than expected. Several people on the CSD Board think that the Recreation Committee and the Teen Center need to do more to make people aware of this most useful local directory whose proceeds are essential to operating the Teen Center this year. The guides are available at most Valley stores and at the Firehouse.
The recurring discussion of how best to fund the administration of community activities, primarily Recreation and the Teen Center, became quite contentious.
Fire Chief Colin Wilson has made it clear that he thinks even the discussion of how District funds are handled is a threat to the fire department's budget. At present, the general manager's administration of these entities, Recreation and the Teen Center, occurs at no additional charge to the committee’s budgets, meaning that a small percentage of the District’s property tax revenues does go to the Recreation Committee.
General Manager Serina Wallace has proposed to rearrange the District's accounting into a single “combined” budget with consolidated accounts instead of the four or five separate budgets it now consists of.
Before the discussion began, this reporter, who also sits on the District’s Budget Committee, suggested that the question of how to structure the budget be turned over to the Budget Committee for consideration and recommendation, a suggestion which was ignored, irritating the reporter and propelling him back to his notebook. He would be even more irritated later in the irritating meeting when the Board did indeed refer possible budget restructuring to the Budget Committee.
Chairperson Paget declared that she was only interested in a Board discussion without comment from staff or the public, the latter consisting of exactly no one except me, more or less, the Chief and GM Serina Wallace. Ms. Paget's request to exclude us from the conversation was rather like asking three of the eight persons in one's livingroom to go play in the sandbox out back while the other five talked grown-up talk.
Chief Wilson said he thought Paget’s proposal was “kind of offensive.” The Chief thought he should be part of any discussion of the District’s budget since most of it funds the Fire Department.
Director LaCampagne also disagreed with Paget's desire to restrict pesky comment to the five directors. LaCampagne said she wanted “input” from staff as part of the discussion.
Which was when Director Wilder said that Chief Wilson tended to “dominate the meetings and nothing gets done.”
An aghast Chief Wilson declared that he was “shocked” at Wilder's characterization of his contributions. The Chief said it was Wilder who dominated the meetings not him, citing what the Chief described as Wilder's “45 minutes” of meeting time to discuss Airport activities.
Objectively, Wilder's presentation was about ten minutes in duration. Objectively, Chief Wilson does go on. Sometimes on and on.
Ms. Hanelt said she thought the Board spent too much time discussing problems with the Teen Center and the Recreation Committee considering how relatively little money was allocated to these entities, and that “they need to get their act together.” Hanelt also said she was reluctant to change the budget structure because she had not been convinced that it needed to be changed.
Hanelt’s remark about the Recreation Committee offended Paget, always quick to take umbrage, who asked for examples of where the Rec Committee's act wasn't together. Hanelt replied that it seemed to her like they were just spending too much time on admin problems with the Teen Center and the Recreation Committee at Board meetings.
Paget insisted that the Teen Center was functioning just fine but that there seemed to be recurring problems with administration and bookkeeping. Hanelt said that switching money from the Fire Department to another department “alarmed” her. Paget, unalarmed, said that she preferred that all revenues come in to the district first and then be allocated to the various activities but, she said, that probably won’t happen because Chief Wilson “will never give it up.”
Suddenly the room seemed crowded with offended persons, foremost among them was Chief Wilson who was again offended, stating that “somebody has a hidden agenda.”
The Chief went on to say that he was worried that the “fund balance carryover” (the money left over at the end of a fiscal year) might get transferred elsewhere. The Chief said to prevent sudden diversions from the budget he might be tempted to spend it before it went teenward or was recreated.
Would Ms. Paget, the Chief asked, put her budget proposal in writing?
Reluctantly, Ms. Paget agreed that she would “write something,” adding that she had “no intent to raid the fire department.”
The Board then voted to refer the budget structure question to the Budget Committee as your faithful reporter had suggested before everyone had become audibly offended. Your reporter sighed to himself, “If they'd only listened to me all this rancor and negativity could have been avoided.”
The last item on Wednesday’s agenda was Item 18: “Closed session – Paget.”
So it was my turn to be offended.
There is a section of the California Brown Act entitled “Closed Session Agendas”:
“All items to be considered in closed session must be described in the notice or agenda for the meeting. Prior to each closed session, the body must orally announce the subject matter of the closed session. If final action is taken in closed session, the body generally must report the action at the conclusion of the closed session.”
The section continues under “Agenda Exception”:
“Special procedures permit a body to proceed without an agenda in the case of emergency circumstances, or where a need for immediate action came to the attention of the body after posting of the agenda.”
The Brown Act, routinely violated in Mendocino County (but generally not by the CSD board), lists various special circumstances when closed sessions can be held. One of them is the “Personnel Exemption”:
“The body may conduct a closed session to consider appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline or dismissal of an employee. With respect to complaints or charges against an employee brought by another person or another employee, the employee must be notified, at least 24 hours in advance, of his or her right to have the hearing conducted in public.”
The examples given in the Brown Act make it clear that the position being discussed in closed session be listed.
Our humble CSD Board’s closed session agenda item did not comply with the letter or the spirit of the Brown Act.
Director Paget said that the item did involve personnel. Your faithful reporter informed Ms. Paget that was an inadequate description of the business to be privately discussed, and that the only legal way the Board could proceed while complying with the Brown Act would be to declare the item an emergency. Paget replied, “It's important.”
Important is not a synonym for emergency. Sunrise is pretty important. The sun's disappearance would be an emergency.
Paget also said that the agenda was prepared by Board Secretary Joanie Clark, as if the error was somehow Ms. Clark’s — which isn’t relevant since the Board is responsible for the agenda. After being informed that if the item is personnel-related the title of the position must be disclosed, Ms. Paget refused to disclose the title of the position being discussed.
Before departing for the evening, General Manager Wallace agreed with your reporter that the title of the position being discussed is required to be agendized because this gives the employee an opportunity to defend him or herself in public session if that person so chooses.
None of this had any effect on Paget or the rest of the Board, although Director LaCampagne did consult her Brown Act notes to see if the title was required to be listed. She was able to find chapter but not verse.
We have not received official notice of any action taken but have reluctantly decided to prepare a Brown Act complaint and present it to the Board at next month’s meeting. Even though we suspect that the item being discussed was minor (even though Paget said it was “important”), the next time a personnel matter arises, the Board will know the rules, and might even play by them.