The Importance of The Brown Act: An Elected Official’s Perspective

The fact that we are entering a period of limited government hopefully does not mean we are entering a period of limited oversight of governance. The recent walkout by Garden Grove Unified School District Trustee KimOanh Nguyen Lam over an alleged violation of the Brown Act by her fellow board members is a strong case in point. The Brown Act prohibits a quorum of elected officials from deciding on public matters without public notice or input. Dr. Nguyen Lam protested the apparent collusion by at least two of her peers in deciding on who was to be president and vice-president prior to the public meeting. Responding to the allegation, a reportedly flustered Vice President Lan Nguyen admitted that he did indeed speak to Bob Harden about the presidency before the meeting began (but obviously spoke in the presence of Dr. Nguyen Lam). Since three members constitute a quorum, Mr. Lan Nguyen’s actions would seem to fall under the definition and therefore be a violation. But that may be up to the attorney general to determine.

Most readers might be asking what’s the big deal? Deciding on who becomes the next symbolic leader of a local school board may not seem like much to get worked up about. But consider this, the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Trustees may in the near future be asking voters to pass a 100 million dollar construction bond and decisions on which company gets construction bids will be made by at least three of the board members. Cozy quid pro quo relationships and unscrupulous deal making becomes all too easy in an environment that tolerates loose boundaries with the Brown Act. Is it such a big step from making deals on who becomes the next board president to who gets the big dollar contract award?

Perhaps it is time to remind elected officials what the intent of the Brown Act was- “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 sovereigntyto the agencies which serve them.”

Voters should care a lot about how their leaders conduct the people’s business with the people’s money. Unfortunately, Orange County has endured its share of apparent back room deal making. The proposed Orange County Fairgrounds sale is just one most recent example of questionable actions by some public officials.

Fortunately, some folks have had enough. Former State Senator Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) is proposing that the Board of Supervisors adopt a major reform of the Orange County political environment by regulating lobbyists and themselves by establishing a more transparency in the way county government decisions are made. This would be a great start and help send a message to electeds reminding them just who the boss is.

KimOanh Nguyen-Lam

Dr. KimOanh Nguyen Lam is a professor of education at California State University Long Beach, a former PTA president, and the only Orange County educator appointed by State Superintendent Jack O’Connell as a member of his k-16 Education Advisory Committee yet she has never served as president or vice-president of the school board. Like many local elected leaders, she takes her job very seriously and attempted to make a statement to her peers to stop the violations on behalf of the public trust. Her colleagues should be thanking her for reminding them what the intention of the Brown Act was which was to ensure the people’s business is conducted in an open and transparent manner.

It is rather a sad irony that this incident occurred in front of several visiting students who were assigned to watch a real life example of local governance. Talk about a teachable moment in civics. One hopes that the students don’t become more cynical of our democratic system and become dispassionate about voting or speaking their minds. If anything I hope their civics teacher reminds them of words by Patrick Henry who said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

Michael Matsuda, President, North Orange County Community College District