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Capistrano school district settles suit

The Board of Trustees, accused of violating open-meetings law, agrees to tape closed-door sessions.

February 14, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A southern Orange County school district has settled a lawsuit that alleged its trustees violated the state's open-meetings law by gathering behind closed doors to discuss ways to silence a critic.

Under the agreement, the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees will make audio recordings of all closed-session meetings for a year, provide public notice of closed-session items as required by law, provide trustees with training on the Brown Act open-meetings law and pay critic Ron Lackey's attorney's fees of $16,000.

The lawsuit was filed in August by Lackey, who unsuccessfully ran for the district board in November. The Monarch Beach resident said he was satisfied with the agreement but saddened he had to sue the district to accomplish his goals.

"For the amount of money this will cost the district [in attorneys' fees] to have them do what they're legally required to do is unfortunate, because those moneys could have gone to classrooms and teachers' salaries," Lackey said.

The district did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, which trustees approved Monday.

The board settled "to avoid spending precious resources on legal fees which would be better used to educate children," said district spokeswoman Beverly de Nicola. "The board has always made a conscientious attempt to comply with the requirements of the Brown Act and has no problem with reconfirming its commitment to and substantiating its compliance with the Brown Act."

The lawsuit was one of many controversies to dog Capistrano Unified in recent years. Although many of the district's 56 schools are ranked among the state's best, recent brouhahas have included an Orange County Grand Jury probe; a raid of district headquarters by the district attorney; the resignation of its superintendent after accusations he kept an "enemies list;" and disputes over attendance boundaries, a new school's location, portable classrooms and a new administration center.

Lackey is a retired teacher who was never employed by the district but who taught at schools in Southern California and New York. He attends every board meeting and regularly speaks on agenda items related to district spending.

In the lawsuit, Lackey alleged that the district violated the state's open-meetings law by discussing inappropriate matters -- including how to silence him -- during a closed-session meeting. The state's Brown Act allows elected officials to meet in closed-session in strictly limited circumstances, such as employee evaluations, labor negotiations and legal matters.

A July 30, 2005, closed-door meeting was held to discuss then-Supt. James Fleming's performance evaluation. A summary of the meeting lists topics of discussion, including the school-year calendar, parental fundraising and advertising on school buses. The first item on the summary, labeled "School Board Meeting Conduct Protocol," notes, "In general, board members want to start to limit Ron Lackey and the amount of items he can address. Suggest that the board go back to only allowing members of the public to address two items as stated in board policy."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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