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April 5, 2005 > Editorial: Behind Closed Doors

Editorial: Behind Closed Doors

There are legitimate times when public organizations and government needs to discuss sensitive information behind closed doors. However, strict limitations apply to circumstances when such issues can be shielded from public view. The Brown Act recognizes several categories of discussion which can remain confidential, but requires the nature of any closed session action and vote breakdown, in all but a few cases, be disclosed.

In adversarial situations, briefings on strategy are allowed to remain private. Sensitive employee negotiations may also be carried out in closed sessions. School districts are subject to a different union bargaining law than other local agencies. The Rodda Act provides more flexibility but the public has the right to adequate notice to express its views in a timely fashion.

Property negotiations are rightfully of public interest. Private consultation with a school district's agent to discuss price, terms of sale, rental or lease is allowable, but not to discuss the merits or feasibility of a contemplated property transaction or any topic preliminary to a specific negotiation. Price and terms of payment sought or offered may be discussed in private session. The proposed sale or lease of "surplus property" at Ohlone College falls in this category.

The primary interest protected by the Brown Act when dealing with employees is that of privacy. In most cases, the law specifically allows the affected employee to waive that protection and request a public session.

Poor administrative decisions are, at times, only cleared by active public inspection and council/board involvement in open and honest discussions. An instance that appears to fall within this category is the rumored demotion of a Connie White, the well-respected principal of American High School. This alleged decision is being challenged by a significant segment of the community which is asking the Fremont Unified School Board to take an active interest and review the circumstances of her case. As elected representatives, this is their role.

Hiding behind closed sessions, fears of litigation and statements of policy while rumors and innuendo proliferate is unacceptable. This is especially true when someone's professional reputation is at risk. Strong and decisive response is what is expected and necessary to not only build community confidence but support a strong and fair administrative system as well. Ms. White's privacy is paramount, but when public outrage reaches a boiling point, the board must take action.

If the administrative decision was a good one, the board needs to stand behind it and its superintendent. However, if the decision was flawed and an error has been made, the board must publicly correct it and take necessary disciplinary action so the district can get on with the business of educating our kids.

Note: Brown & Rodda Act information source: The California Journalist's Legal Notebook

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