First Amendment Coalition: Mann Violated Brown Act by Emailing Gripes to Board

By sending a series of emails regarding Schools Superintendent Chuck Weis to his colleagues on the County Board of Education, Craig Mann may have violated the Brown Act, which dictates that public officials not conduct business in private. Leila C. Knox, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, says Mann violated California’s open government policy when he sent off his messages to the entire board.

“Personnel matters would seem to be in the subject matter jurisdiction of what the Board of Education does,” Knox says. “They are not talking about their summer vacations or something like that…So it would seem that this would be a violation of the Brown Act to the extent that they are discussing these via e-mail.”

Knox says Mann’s emails, some of which were also copied to community leaders and members of the media, fall under the Brown Act’s definition of a “serial meeting.”

“Even if it’s just a one way email, even if nobody emailed back, it’s planting the seeds and getting the discussion going,” Knox says.

Local Brown Act violations are handed by the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office. When reached for comment, spokeswoman Amy Cornell referred San Jose Inside to Aryn P. Harris at the County Counsel’s office. Harris said she couldn’t comment on legal matters, and referred questions back to Knox and the First Amendment Coalition as an authority on Brown Act issues.

If someone is found flouting of the Brown Act, Knox says, the District Attorney’s office could issue a court order stating that party is in violation of the Act — as well as threatening litigation if it happens again.

The Brown Act cites a California Attorney General Opinion from 2001, that states that “a majority of the board members of a local public agency may not e-mail each other to develop a collective concurrence as to an action to be taken by the board without violating the Ralph M. Brown Act even if the emails are also sent to the secretary and chairperson of the agency.” [84 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 30 (2001)]

Knox says that even though Mann’s emails were also sent to a wider pool of community members and media, he still didn’t follow the Act’s guidelines that require public hearings and public notification of meetings.

“The fact that he emailed some newspapers doesn’t qualify as fulfilling all those other obligations,” Knox says.

5 Comments

  1. Does this guy actually draw a check for being on the Board?  Instead of months and years of hand wringing, why not simply get it over with and sh*tcan him?

  2. Jamie McLeod would frequently communicate by email to people opposed to Measure J even about the signature gathering and then claimed they were private emails though she spoke of them during public meetings.

    Sound like a violation as well.

  3. IF . . . and it’s a big if . . . IF Craig Mann’s case is ever actually brought before the SCCBOE for a vote on a motion of censure, I predict that Mann will NOT be censured.

    There is at most, two votes for censuring Mann:

    Leon Beauchman, and possibly one other.

    The remainder of the board will duck and cover, or in the case of Mann, get in the face of the majority of cowardly weenies on the board and scare them into like bunny rabbits into the tall grass..

  4. Somebody is confused, but it is justifiable.  Having served as a Mayor of a local city, planning commissioner in two cities as well as member of many public commissions and boards, I have some experience with the Brown Act; which I have a copy in my right hand drawer.

    There is a lot confusion about serial meetings, especially when it comes to electronic correspondence.

    If you email your peers on a public board, as long as they do not email you back and try to have a conversation with ‘all’, then it fine.  Actually, the one that first responds to the email and copies ‘all’ is the one that actually violates the intent of the Brown act, but still no recommended. 

    Its a bit of a catch-22, or paradox, or just a fuzzy issue…

    An elected, or appointed official is still covered by freedom of speech. He/she can say, print.. etc.. anything they want, including in a BLOG or CC list.  Its the act of trying to have a closed/non-public conversation with the majority of the ‘board’ that gets people in trouble.

    If I copied all my peers on a planning commission, which is not a good or recommended idea, I’m just expressing my opinion. If one of them copies back and includes the rest, then a conversation is taking place.  Then there is a problem of forwarding the message from one peer to another, which also could be construed as a serial conversation.

    Really weird stuff, but true.

    Its’ the act of trying to have a conversation and come to a conclusion with the majority of the ‘board’, ‘commission’ … that gets one in trouble.

    Of course the lawyers for each jurisdiction coaches at different levels.  Some are very conservative, others not.  That places another layer of confusion over the law.

    The best advise is to stay away from emailing your opinions to peers on your ‘board’.    Just have a lunch with one or two, but not a majority.  That also has risks, but manageable.

    Hope this helps.

    Norman Kline