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Dissenters Steamed but Not Heard

Riled by a trustee's possible retirement package, four people ask to speak at a Coast Community College meeting but are refused.

September 03, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

People opposing the retirement prospect of a Coast Community College District trustee were denied the chance to speak during the district's board meeting Wednesday night.

The retirement prospect has stirred faculty and others because, with a quirk in state law, Armando R. Ruiz could claim a pension of about $55,000 a year for his trustee position -- which pays about $10,000 a year -- if he retires Oct. 31, the same day he will retire as a counselor at Irvine Valley College.

Though Ruiz has not said whether he'll retire, some wonder whether he will just to collect the windfall. If he does, they wonder whether the retirement would be short-lived -- because he is on the Nov. 2 ballot, listed as an incumbent seeking another four-year term.

A resolution addressing Ruiz's possible retirement, written by the Coast Federation of Teachers, was on the board agenda. When four people submitted requests to speak about it, board President George E. Brown refused.

Brown said he was removing the agenda item after conferring with attorneys for the district, who told him the board had no authority over when Ruiz retires. He also denied a request by the president of the teachers union, Dean Mancina, to amend the resolution to remove any mention of Ruiz.

"Whether Armando Ruiz retires is none of our business," Brown said. "We're on the borderline of politics here."

Ruiz has repeatedly refused to discuss his plans and remained silent on it Wednesday.

The trustees oversee campuses at Orange Coast and Golden West colleges and online classes through Coastline Community College.

Even if the union's resolution was improper, Brown should have allowed the public to speak on the issue, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, based in San Francisco.

"I would say they'd be on very thin ice to say they shouldn't allow any comment at all because of their view that the issue didn't fall within their jurisdiction," Scheer said. "It's at least arguable that it does fall under their purview in some way."

That the issue could be deemed political is all the more reason to allow comment, he said.

During Wednesday night's meeting, Trustee Jerry Patterson accused Brown of violating the state's open-meeting law, which provides an opportunity for comment on matters within the jurisdiction of the public body. Patterson asked to have Mancina's revised resolution placed on the Sept. 15 board agenda.

The resolution cites the state's code of fair campaign practices, which board members are asked to sign, pledging "decency, honesty and fair play" in elections. The resolution concludes by stating that it would be dishonest and unethical for any trustee who intends to retire before his term ends to run for reelection as an incumbent.

Patterson said that Ruiz has a fiduciary duty to the district to disclose his plans and that he should tell voters whether he intends to retire two days before balloting on his reelection bid as an incumbent.

Later in the meeting, Brown inadvertently allowed one speaker to address the issue under general public comments.

Diane A. Lenning, who with fellow educator Bonnie Castrey is challenging Ruiz in the election, said that if Ruiz wants to retire, he should do so and not serve another term.

Asked later why he let Lenning speak for five minutes, Brown said he didn't realize who she was or what she would say. Had he known, he said, "I wouldn't have allowed it."

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