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Ventura County

D.A.'s Report Faults Rio School Trustees

May 17, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

A Ventura County district attorney's investigation of the Rio School District's Board of Trustees revealed "a disturbing number" of open-meeting law violations in recent months, but prosecutors said they will give school officials a chance to correct the pattern of mistakes before taking any action.

The inquiry was prompted by complaints lodged after a sharply divided board abruptly suspended Supt. Yolanda Benitez at its March 5 meeting pending an investigation of the administrator. At the time, parents, teachers and other activists questioned whether trustees properly posted the closed-session action on the agenda under the Brown Act.

According to the district attorney's report, released Friday, that agenda item was not properly posted. But prosecutors found that the problems were corrected at a March 12 special meeting during which board members voted again to suspend the superintendent, but with a much more specific agenda description.

Still, the investigation found a pattern of behavior that warrants serious attention from school district leaders, said Tom Harris, special assistant district attorney. Specifically, the report says board members on at least two occasions illegally prohibited members of the public from speaking on agenda items before action was taken. It also finds several problems with the board agendas themselves.

"It would not be a report card that I would be proud to show to my parents," Harris said. "Checks would be marked under 'needs improvement.' "

Neither the trustees nor the board's newly hired attorneys could be reached for comment late Friday.

In the report, the board's attorneys are quoted as saying that the group intends to hold a study session to review requirements and procedures of the Brown Act and to "enhance the effectiveness and openness of the board's meetings."

One way the report recommends they do that is to record all meetings on audiotape. Records of the three meetings investigated were pieced together by collecting audio and video recordings from audience members, the report said.

Harris said prosecutors will continue to monitor the board's meetings to ensure changes are made. "They need to make sure their meetings are conducted openly," he said.

Benitez remains on paid leave pending an investigation of her administrative and financial practices.

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