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D.A. Office Says O.C. Trustees in Violation

Westminster's school board is told it must allow public debate on a mass mailing.

June 15, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Beleaguered Westminster School District trustees have violated state law by voting, without appropriate public discussion, to mail a letter districtwide defending their stance on a state antidiscrimination law, the Orange County district attorney's office has warned.

Prosecutors said they would drop the matter if the trustees reconsidered their decision to mail the letter to district employees and parents and first allowed public debate.

Critics say the effort to send out the mailing is the latest abuse of power by Helena Rutkowski, Judy Ahrens and Blossie Marquez and hoped it would bolster efforts to recall Ahrens and Marquez. Rutkowski, whose term expires in November, is not targeted.

Recall organizers said Monday they probably would miss the chance to qualify it for the November ballot but were continuing efforts to collect enough signatures to force a vote, perhaps in a special election.

At a board meeting this month, the three trustees -- a majority of the five-member board -- ordered district administrators to mail the letter to parents and staff against the protests of the other two trustees, who said it did not represent their views.

The letter, proposed by Rutkowski, defended their decision to challenge the wording of the state law intended to protect gays, transsexuals and others from harassment. They opposed the law's provision allowing students and teachers to define their gender when making discrimination claims and came up with compromise language for the Westminster district that the state approved.

District staffers had already begun printing the estimated 7,500 copies of the letter Friday when Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Crofoot instructed them to stop. The trustees, he said, had violated the state's Ralph M. Brown Act because the public had not been allowed to read and comment on the letter before the vote.

He told the board to allow public debate about the letter and vote a second time on the issue at its July 1 meeting, "so that I may close this file with no further action."

Rutkowski said she considered Crofoot's demand only "a suggestion" and dismissed the idea that the public had intentionally been kept in the dark. "They can read it in the meeting minutes," she said of the letter.

Recall advocates angrily disagreed. "Its just one more thing they have stupidly done," said recall leader Louise MacIntyre. "It's another example of what they'll continue to do."

MacIntyre said volunteers had not yet collected the 7,233 signatures needed to place the recall on the ballot. She declined to say how many signatures had been gathered.

Recall petitions began circulating in mid-May and must be turned in to the county registrar of voters by Sept. 7.

County election officials said that although there was no firm deadline, it was becoming increasing likely that, even if enough signatures were gathered, there would not be enough time to verify them and certify the recall election by Aug. 6, the deadline to place it on the November ballot.

After Aug. 6, a special election would have to be held, which could cost the school district as much as $72,300, election officials said.

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