In a dramatic move supporting government transparency and accountability, Dr. KimOanh Nguyen Lam, Trustee for the Garden Grove Unified School District, walked out ofÂ Tuesday evening’sÂ board meeting over an alleged blatant violation of the Brown Act by her fellow board members. The Brown Act prohibits a quorum of elected officials from deciding on public matters without public notice or input.
Before a packed board room that included many high school students covering the board meeting for their civics class, Dr. Nguyen Lam referenced actions that took place in the boardâ€™s organizational meeting on December 15, 2009.
â€œRight before the board meeting began, as we were sitting in our seats, up here on the dais, which at that time from left to right, Mrs. Linda Reed, Mr. Lan Nguyen, myself, Mr. Bob Harden, and Dr. George West – Mr. Lan Nguyen walked over to Mr. Bob Harden and asked him, in a hushed voice, if he agreed to be the next board president. Mr. Harden said yes and nodded his head to show his consent. Then Mr. Lan Nguyen turned to Dr. George West and asked if Dr. West could nominate Lan for the Vice-president post. Dr. West laughed out loud and teased Lan for wanting only the â€œsecond positionâ€ â€“ but he also agreed to do the nomination. This took place just a few minutes before Dr. Schwalm (GGUSD Superintendent) called the meeting to order and we all stood up to do the pledge of allegiance.
So when the organizational meeting process began, everything proceeded as Mr. Lan Nguyen had arranged. Lan nominated Bob for the Board President and George seconded it. Next, George West nominated Lan Nguyen for vice-president and Linda Reed seconded and he remained in his seat (as he was the vice-president to Linda Reed last year.) I was so stunned that I could not respond. When Dr. Schwalm called for the vote, I remained silent. I was feeling conflicted because what had just occurred was potentially a violation of the Brown Act.
Way back when I was first elected, I was sent to a training in D.C. organized by NALEAO- the National Association for the Latino Elected and Appointed Officers. One training session covered the Brown Act. I was taught that whenever 3 board members talked to each other prior to a board meeting on a topic that required a vote – that was a violation of the Brown Act. I also learned that if one board member talked to one, then that one talked to another on the same topic – that too, violates the Brown Act. I also recalled being told that if one board member talks to two different board members separately but on the same issue would constitute a Brown Act violation.
It isnâ€™t easy for me to bring this up â€“ but – the most important thing to me is my integrity â€“ I am an educator and a member elected to represent and serve the community. Integrity â€“ which I define as having the courage to live in a way that my beliefs, my thoughts, my words, and actions are all aligned. That is why I bring this up to you today. Without integrity, there is no public trust. So, please help me resolve this dilemma.â€
The board looked shocked and for a few awkward moments, there was complete silence. At length, Lan Nguyen admitted that he did indeed talk to Bob Harden about whether he wanted to be president but denied that was a violation of the act. Given that this conversation took place right next to George West, it is difficult to believe that Dr. West did not hear the conversation and agree to the deal since Dr West indeed nominated Lan for vice-president. When asked directly by KimOanh what happened on December 15th, Dr. West said he did not recall. President Bob Harden then called for staff to consult legal counsel at which point KimOanh walked out amid a rousing ovation.
One had to wonder what the civic students were thinking about our democratic system, especially when Dr. Nguyen Lam, upon departing, said, â€œThe truth is â€“ I know it has been a political maneuver engineered by a certain board member and concurred by others. But that did not bother me. Each person has one vote and each counts equally. As long as I can continue to serve our constituents, I am fine. What did bother me was the conspiracy against me, year after year, which undermined our mutual trust and respect. How can the Board serve the public effectively when board members do not have mutual trust and respect?â€
Indeed when comparing the resume and experience of KimOanh Nguyen Lam to Lan Nguyen or for that matter, any of her fellow board members, Dr. Nguyen is highly qualified to lead the board. She is an acclaimed education professor at California State University Long Beach, a former teacher and PTA president, and an appointed member of State Superintendent Jack Oâ€™Connellâ€™s pre-k-16 Advisory Board. Yet in the six years she has been on the board, she never has been president or vice-president.
It should also be noted that the fact that Dr. Nguyen Lam was present for and heard Lan Nguyen’sÂ discussions with two other board members in itself constitutes a violation of the BrownÂ Act since only three members are required for a quroum.Â Further, if indeed Lan Nguyen’s account is accurate, then Lan Nguyen himself conducted a serial meeting in order to orchestrate the outcome of a vote pending before the Board. That, in and of itself, is also a violation of the Brown Act. Given Lan Nguyen’s tenure on the Board there is no excuse for his behavior. It is a clear violation of the Brown Act and he either knows it or should know it.
Lan Nguyen and former board member Trung Nguyen, both part of the Van Tran â€œmachineâ€ and non-educators, have benefitted from being president and vice-president positions. They along with Linda Reed, Bob Harden and now apparently George West represent why people are losing faith in government and its ability to get things accomplished.
Although Dr. Nguyen Lam has made it clear that she does not want to take legal action, she does want the board to clean up its act. Perhaps the board should start by revisiting the purpose the Brown Act which states:
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 next thing the board should do is apologize to the students.