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Probe of School Board's Closed Meetings Urged

June 02, 1998|DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

State Sen. Tom Hayden informed Los Angeles school board members Monday that he considers their lengthy closed sessions legally suspect and has called on City Atty. James Hahn to investigate.

In response to a Times article Monday on the Board of Education's use of closed sessions, Hayden (D-Los Angeles) said he obtained an informal opinion from the state legislative counsel that the actions seem "questionable." A formal opinion is pending.

The Times reported that the board meets 90 minutes in closed session for every hour before the public and that it frequently hammers out decisions secretly before casting votes in public.

"It would appear from today's Los Angeles Times' account that the taxpaying public is being denied basic democratic rights by a district board and staff that make de facto decisions in secret," Hayden said in a letter to board President Julie Korenstein.

The state's open meeting law, called the Brown Act, prohibits secret ballots, "even preliminary."

A spokesman for the city attorney's office said Hahn received the letter and was reviewing it.

Violations of the Brown Act can be prosecuted as criminal misdemeanors.

In addition, any decision taken during an illegal closed meeting could be overturned.

District general counsel Richard K. Mason defended the closed sessions as necessary to brief the board on the district's numerous legal and personnel matters, which are exempted from the requirement that all elected officials hold their meetings in public.

Mason denied that the board took votes in closed session on matters required to be voted upon in public. He also contended that the restriction on secret votes applies only to the open portion of the meetings.

Hayden said that if it turns out secret "straw voting" is allowed through legal loopholes or ambiguities, he will seek to amend the law to prohibit such polling.

Hayden also said the board's "pattern of unusual secrecy" illustrates the need for an office of inspector general, a proposal that board member David Tokofsky introduced last fall.

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