A Los Banos Unified School District board member is questioning whether other trustees may have violated open meetings laws last month during a push for a vote on a hotly debated construction project.
Trustee John Mueller questioned whether Tommy Jones and other board members violated the Ralph M. Brown Act while arranging a special meeting for July 26 to discuss a construction contract for the Mercey Springs Elementary expansion project awarded that day to Greg Opinski.
Trustee Dennis Areias, who described Opiniski as being a “buddy” of Jones, also questioned the need for a meeting he argues was hastily scheduled and unnecessary, and wondered whether the board members were trying to avoid input from the public.
During the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 11, Mueller stepped down from his chair to speak as a citizen during the public comment segment.
Mueller asked board President Anthony Parreira whether Jones had contacted him to say that trustees Dominic Falasco, Marlene Smith and Carole Duffy would be at the special July 26 meeting.
“Yes, he did,” Parreira said.
“So, if he called three other board members to make sure that that special board meeting happens, isn’t that breaking the Brown Act?” Mueller asked.
The Brown Act is a state law that regulates how meetings of public bodies with boards of elected officials are held in California. According to the California attorney general’s opinion on the Brown Act, serial meetings defined as a series of one-to-one communications between a majority but not a quorum of board members “to develop a collective concurrence as to action to be taken” is specifically prohibited.
Discussion of times, dates and placement of matters on the agenda with the executive officer of the board may not constitute a violation, according to the opinion.
Brown Act violations can result in criminal penalties, and governing bodies can also face regulation by courts.
Areias said his concern was why Jones and three other board members who have formed a majority voting bloc with Jones were rushing the project through a special board meeting when it could have been voted on during the Aug. 11 meeting.
The project timing would cause disruption at the school, Areias claimed, adding that the new $7 million project would likely sit idle for six months.
“Was this to eliminate input from the public? I can’t answer that,” Areias said.
Jones didn’t respond to any of Mueller’s or Arieas’ concerns at the meeting. But in an interview Tuesday, Jones denied violating the Brown Act, explaining that he only talked with two board members about the special meeting, not three. He also said Falasco initially made the call to set up the meeting.
Falasco couldn’t be reached for comment. But during the special meeting, he said he called the meeting because he couldn’t make the July 21 meeting due to health concerns.
The Brown Act debate is the latest in a series of public battles between Los Banos school board members.
Areias, during the Aug. 11 meeting, continued questioning Jones, asking whether Jones has ever taken any money from Opinski and whether Jones has ever paid other board members for their votes.
Jones has refused to address those questions, only saying “I’ll let an attorney handle those questions.”
Opinski flatly denied paying off Jones, saying there was “absolutely no truth to anything like that.”
“It’s shameful, considering the fact that I did about $30 million worth of work for the district,” Opinski said, noting that his work included remodeling almost every building in the district. “(Areias) was one of the board members at the time, so these accusations are unbelievable.”
Opinski said he is concerned with how the allegations could impact his reputation.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562