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.