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OPINION -- SMMUSD Board Masks Brown Act Violations

By Diana Hinek

At Thursday night's School Board meeting, Board Member Craig Foster expressed dismay at having lost his train of thought.

This happened, he said, as a result of having been distracted by the rest of the board (seated together at the District Office) engaging in a separate conversation while he was talking from his Zoom square.

When City Councilmember Oscar de la Torre provided his testimony last night we noticed the same thing happening.

As a hearing impaired and actively engaged parent, I am deeply troubled by what I’m witnessing.

I fear things will only get worse unless parents like myself speak out against undemocratic, rude and possibly illegal off mic conversations transpiring among the board majority during our public meetings.

It has become an unacceptable board practice that has the potential to carry on, uninterrupted, for years to come.

This is because AB 361, section 54953(e) of the California code allows the Board to continue to meet with no public in physical attendance until as late as January 1, 2024.

What were board members saying to each other last night -- lips hidden behind masks, off mic and seated within the insular walls of the District Board room?

What positions are being shared amongst themselves that the public cannot hear?

The Law entitles us open-access transparent board meetings, however, engaged parents like myself have become increasingly skeptical by the obfuscation that’s taking advantage of our rights to a proper public process.

The Brown Act expressly prohibits a board majority from conferring with one another in advance of public meetings on issues directly related to District matters.

The same holds true for open sessions of board meetings. What do we call a public meeting where the public cannot hear board majority comments because members are masked and muted? A failed process? A mockery?

If the Board believes in transparency, civility and good governance, then they should make a policy that doesn’t blind us from their muted conversations.

Do not delay in making a choice to:

A) Remove your masks for the entirety of these meetings so the public can read lips and determine whether the Brown Act and/or the Civility Policy is being violated.

B) Do what was expected of our children during more than a year of Distance Learning: “Sit straight in the chairs, remain undistracted by cell phones, etc., make sure you can be seen by the camera and do not interrupt when others are speaking. Instead, be sure to raise your hand and to speak only when it is your turn to speak.”

In addition, best practice would include directing staff to portray the Board majority as a very large image at all times during the Zoom Board meetings, particularly when public testimony is being provided.

Diana Hinek is a School District parent who has lived in Santa Monica for 15 years.

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