This story was first printed by the Daily Post on Jan. 17. To get all of the important local news first, pick up the Post in the mornings at 1,000 Mid-Peninsula locations.
BY ELAINE GOODMAN
Daily Post Correspondent
The East Palo Alto Sanitary District violated the state’s open meeting law when it approved a reorganization plan resulting in the firing of three employees, a San Mateo County Superior Court judge said in a proposed decision.
As a result of the violation, the board’s adoption of the reorganization plan in September 2016 is null and void, according to the tentative decision that Judge Marie Weiner issued on Jan. 13. Parties in the case have 15 days to file objections to Weiner’s proposed statement of decision.
The decision was issued in a case filed in December 2016 by Rodney Ryce, who worked for the sanitary district until October 2016 as office manager and human resources manager.
Ryce’s lawsuit against the sanitary district was merged with a lawsuit filed in June 2017 by another former employee, Stephanie Griffin. Griffin worked for the district for more than a decade as an accounting assistant.
Ryce and Griffin claimed they were fired in retaliation for questioning the spending of Karen Maxey, who was hired as the district’s interim general manager in February 2016.
Ryce and Griffin also alleged that sanitary district board members violated the state’s open meeting law, the Brown Act, by meeting or communicating secretly about the reorganization plan. Ryce argued that the board’s 3-2 vote to approve the reorganization plan on Sept. 8, 2016 was tainted by multiple violations of the Brown Act that took place on or before the meeting date.
Judge Weiner agreed, finding that the sanitary district board meeting of Sept. 8, 2016, as well as previous board meetings, were literally conducted behind locked doors.
The board meetings take place at the district’s offices at 901 Weeks St., where the front door was always locked, according to board member testimony.
Although a receptionist would monitor the front door to “buzz in” people who rang the doorbell, the board meetings started at 7 p.m., two hours after the reception desk closed for the day. And the doorbell rang only at the reception desk and not elsewhere in the building, according to records in the case.
“In no sense of the words was that board meeting (on Sept. 8, 2016) ‘open’ or ‘public,’” the judge wrote.
Topic of meetings not disclosed
In testimony, board members Joan Sykes-Miessi and Glenda Savage acknowledged that the two-member HR committee that they served on met several times before the Sept. 8, 2016 board meeting to discuss a potential reorganization of the district. Sykes-Miessi said that draft reorganization charts and reports by the HR committee regarding reorganization were presented to the full board two to four times between January and September 2016.
But the word “reorganization” did not appear in any of the sanitary district’s board minutes or agendas before the September 2016 board meeting, the judge noted.
“Given that the subject of reorganization or of elimination of employee positions does not appear in any prior agenda or any prior minutes, the only conclusion is that it was not public and not open, but rather kept secret or obfuscated from the public knowledge and from district employees,” Judge Weiner wrote.
Board members also admitted in testimony that minutes and audio recordings of HR committee meetings had disappeared.
Minutes and recordings missing
Sykes-Miessi said that minutes for the committee’s meeting on May 12, 2016 were missing, and an audio recording could not be found. Savage said that in addition to the May 2016 meeting, minutes and an audio recording for the committee’s meeting on Aug. 25, 2016 had also vanished.
Griffin, one of the two plaintiffs in the case, testified that she would digitally record board meetings and HR committee meetings. After the meeting, she would upload the audio file to her work computer, download it to the district’s shared drive and burn the file onto a CD. The file would be emailed to a transcriber and the CD would be stored in a folder with a printout of the minutes.
With the audio file stored in so many different places, Griffin said, it would be impossible to accidentally lose or delete it.
Griffin said that when Maxey became interim general manager in early 2016, Maxey started attending board and committee meetings instead of Griffin. And in April 2016, Maxey forbade staff members from listening to recordings of district meetings, Griffin said.
Ryce alleged in his lawsuit that the two members of the HR committee, Savage and Sykes-Miessi, discussed the reorganization plan with board member Betsy Yanez outside of a public meeting, convincing Yanez to support it.
The three board members represent a majority of the five-member board, and the Brown Act prohibits that type of communication among a majority of board members.
The judge said that Ryce failed to prove that the three board members secretly discussed the reorganization plan. But the judge found that the board had violated the Brown Act in other ways.
Although Griffin alleged in her lawsuit that the district board violated the Brown Act, the judge dismissed that particular claim. The judge said that before filing her lawsuit, Griffin failed to take a required step of demanding in writing that the district “cure or correct” the violation.
The judge’s decision on the Brown Act violations ends the first phase of the case. A second phase, which may go to a jury trial, will focus on the plaintiffs’ other claims, including wrongful termination.