A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge has sided with a former Mountain View School District trustee who filed a lawsuit this summer alleging the district violated California's open-meeting law, the Brown Act.
Steve Nelson's complaint, filed in August, contended the school board's use of the word "negotiations" to describe closed session agenda items was "vague" and did not meet the Brown Act's requirement for a "brief general description" of each agenda item on a regular meeting agenda, including items to be discussed in closed session.
"In using the vague description 'negotiations' — and in otherwise keeping the public in the dark about the matters to be — and being - considered at meetings, the district and governing board have operated and/or sought to undermine the role of the public guaranteed by the Brown Act," Nelson's complaint reads.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thang Nguyen Barrett agreed in a December order that using the term "negotiations" alone to describe a closed session agenda item is in violation of the Brown Act, according to court documents, and banned the district from doing so in the future. The judge also ordered the district to pay $5,500 in Nelson's legal fees.
In a statement, Mountain View Whisman School District Public Information Officer Shelly Hausman described the use of "negotiations" as "an error in terminology that we should have caught."
"We all make mistakes," she wrote. "Once it was brought to our attention, we made the necessary adjustments. It's always our district's intent to operate with transparency and adherence to the letter of the Brown Act. It's unfortunate that Mr. Nelson felt the only recourse was a lawsuit. In the future, we hope that Mr. Nelson will find other avenues of bringing concerns to the district rather than lawsuits that cost money that could otherwise be used for students."
Nelson first raised his concerns to the district in a cease and desist letter in December 2018 about agendas for meetings held in January and April of that year, according to the complaint.
At the board's Jan. 10, 2019 meeting, the trustees unanimously (4-0) adopted a staff recommendation to no longer use the term "negotiations" to describe closed session agenda items "in order to avoid unnecessary litigation and without admitting any violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act."
The one-word description "negotiations," however, appeared on the July 23, 2020 school board agenda for a closed session item. Nelson filed his lawsuit believing the board would continue to "violate the Brown Act by holding closed sessions based on legally inadequate descriptions."
"Matters to be addressed in a closed session of a legislative body subject to the Brown Act need to be clear and definite enough for the public to determine what matters of public interest or concern are or may be involved and whether to comment beforehand as guaranteed," the complaint states.
The district's attorneys asked the judge to dismiss the case in September, denying Nelson's allegations.
Nelson said on Monday that he has written to the newly constituted school board that "I will be watching all their agendas for Brown Act compliance, particularly closed sessions, with an eagle eye this year."
Nelson, who left the board in 2016, clashed with the district during his tenure over public records requests. In 2013, he was censured by his colleagues for unprofessional behavior and violating the board's code of conduct.