DA rules that AS Elections Committee violated Brown Act

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office ruled that last year’s Elections Committee violated several sections of a public meetings law at two meetings concerning actions made about previous Associated Students Director of Activities, Matthew Nicholson.

The Brown Act, a law guaranteeing the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies, is used to prevent undisclosed meetings and help keep the public fully informed.

The Corsair attempted to get comments from District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Associated Dean of Student Life Sonali Bridges, Matthew Nicholson and several students, all of whom have not made comments on the DA Office’s ruling.

The DA’s Office ruled that the board committed five violations of the Brown Act Laws.

Robert Myers, SMC Campus Council, confirms through an email that, “Any violation of the Brown Act by students during the last school year was inadvertent and the result of the lack of training”.

Though the DA Office will not be issuing formal actions against the Election Committee for their violations, however it is recommending that the committee consider retracting all actions taken during the 3:30 P.M. March 27 meeting.

They also suggest that all actions taken concerning this matter and other meeting agendas be properly noticed so the public has the opportunity to be heard. Additionally, it is suggested that the Board provide timely notice of meetings and proper description of meeting agenda items, so to prevent a formal action in the future.

The ruling states that the Elections Committee violated several acts at two meetings that took place at 10:45 A.M. and 3:30 P.M. on March 27. At these meetings, the committee members discussed the actions of Matthew Nicholson at the AS affiliated “Feed the Students” event that took place on March 25.

This arose from speculation that Nicholson’s “Feed the Students” A.S. event was used to give out free pizza as a way of gathering votes.

Aubrey Sassoon (as recorded in the minutes as Ben Sassoon), previous Elections Committee member commented on Nicholson’s actions at the 10:45 March 27 A.S. Elections Committee Special Meeting: “While [Nicholson] wasn’t explicitly saying he was running, [he] seems to be giving the illusion that it’s a campaign giveaway, which isn’t allowed since it has value.”

This suggests the committee believed Nicholson violated rule number 6 under Publicity guidelines in the Section VII of the Campaign Guidelines in the A.S. Election Code of 2014. The section states that, “Candidates may not issue incentives that have inherent value (pencils, candy, etc.)”.

Nicholson was later disqualified as a candidate for A.S. president at the 3:30 P.M. special meeting on March 27.

The first violation the E.C. committed concerned the lack of public notice of special meetings to publications of general circulation on campus, referring to The Corsair newspaper, on campus radio and television stations. Written notice of the meetings were also not individually given to the committee members. Both were constituted as Brown Act violations.

The second violation concerns how the special meetings were carried out. The ruling states that the committee incorrectly adjourned their first meeting and improperly made actions on discussion items.

Out of seven agenda items on the first A.S. Elections Committee Special Meeting, two were discussed. The first being the approval of the minutes, the second entitled “What constitutes ‘reasonable deception’ as far as implying who sponsors an event”.

The second agenda item was not properly transferred to the second meeting later that day. Actions thereafter made on this agenda item constituted a Brown Act violation.

The third violation the DA’s office found was that the Election’s Committee took action at the 3:30 P.M. meeting on an item not contained on the agenda.

The only time this can be done is in an “emergency situation”, constituted by the Government Code 54954.5 as an activity that impairs public health, mass destruction, terrorist act, threatened terrorist activity and activities that, in general, pose immediate peril.

The board needed to vote that this emergency situation existed, which it did not, explaining why they did not vote to approve it. Therefore, resulting in their taking of action of a non-agenda item being another Brown Act violation.

The fourth violation committed concerned an insufficient notice of the second meeting that occurred on March 27 at 3:30 P.M.

Soon after the first morning meeting, the second agenda was posted containing differing agenda items from the first meeting. The discussion items of the 10:45 meeting included “Publicizing campaigns during AS events” and “What constitutes ‘reasonable deception’ as far as implying who sponsors an event” were changed to “Deciding what to do about Matt’s Misuse of AS funds”.

Since these were two different special meeting agendas discussing different actions, and not a continuance of the meeting earlier in the day, the agenda then needed to be posted with a 24-hour notice. This constituted another Brown Act violation.

The committee is also cited for providing vague agenda items that don’t indicate people being discussed or specific actions that will be taken. For example, the 3:30 meeting agenda item simply states “Matt’s Misuse of AS funds”. It does not state his last name or actions that will be made.

Though complaints were filed that the committee’s special meetings were closed session, these have gone on unfounded. There is no evidence to support the existence of a “closed meeting” with the exception of an email from the then Elections Committee Chair Jasmine Jafari characterizing the morning meeting as a “pseudo” closed session.

Though Nicholson previously complained during the March 31 E.C. Special Meeting that he was not notified to attend the meeting where he was disqualified, the DA Office, notes that, “Persons without an official role in the meeting should not be present”.

It is stated that legislative bodies need to understand the Brown Act, how it works and why it is in place. It ensures greater public confidence in the integrity of the governing bodies and transparency of the decision making process.

According to the Campus Council Robert Myers and the DA’s Office, SMC is undertaking proactive measures to provide Brown Act training for newly elected AS board members, as well as supervising faculty and staff. Myers says the current AS board “received training in the Brown Act and detailed materials about it” at their recent retreat held in August.