Taking On The Brown Act

At a recent Santa Barbara School District Board of Directors meeting, Dr. Robert Noël caused a stir when he informed his fellow board members that he had turned over notes he had taken during a closed-door session of the board – (see Guillaume Doane’s coverage and story on page 31) – to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney. Noël’s charge was that the referred meeting had violated the terms of the Brown Act and that he was obligated to inform the District Attorney of the apparent violation.

The Brown Act, championed by California Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, was passed and signed into law in 1953. Here’s the Preamble to it:

“In enacting this chapter, the legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards, and councils, and the other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Dr. Noël’s action brought public attention, not only to the 53-year-old Brown Act, but also to the rift between Noël and the four other school board members that has been brewing for a number of years. To those four, and some administrators, Dr. Noël is a gadfly, the definition of which offers two options: 1) “a persistent irritating critic,” or 2) “one that acts as a provocative stimulus.” While Dr. Noël’s adversaries may consider him “a persistent critic,” we equate his actions with the second option. He is not only provocative and stimulating, he is also insistently articulate.

Here’s why Noël gave his notes from the closed-door meeting to the District Attorney: The Brown Act section 54959 states: Each member of a legislative body who attends a meeting of that legislative body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter, and where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled under this chapter, is guilty of a misdemeanor. In other words, Noël felt he might be charged with a misdemeanor if he did not come forward.

School Board meetings can be seriously dull affairs. Serious questions are rarely asked. The appropriateness of spending is almost never questioned, and monetary allotments are customarily increased by set percentages. The system revolves around itself ad infinitum.

But, occasionally, someone like Bob Noël comes along to ask real questions, insist upon real figures and actual results before voting to approve more funds. This kind of “irritating” behavior gums up the works for more irresponsible board members whose only goal, it seems, is to get along with every supplicant, approve every project or funding request and get home as quickly as possible.

Other school board members have their various lobbies and supporters that, come election time, will man the telephones, supply the bodies, and help raise the money that will get their candidate elected and/or re-elected. Bob Noël doesn’t really have any of those interests backing him. All he has are the interests of the parents, students, and taxpayers he was elected to represent. He asks tough questions, demands cogent answers, disapproves of closed-door sessions, and is willing to go public with his dissatisfaction. Dr. Noël, in effect, represents the rest of us.

If that is being a “gadfly,” we say, long live Dr. Noël; may he stay on the school board forever.