Is there a concerted attempt by the Sweetwater Union High School District to silence or stifle criticism? That’s what many public speakers told the trustees during the March 11 board meeting.
The meeting was prefaced by a lecture on civility given by Sweetwater attorney Dan Shinoff. During public comment, former adult school teacher and community advocate Fran Brinkman asked the superintendent and trustees, “How dare you lecture us on civility?"
Brinkman recounted a litany of actions she alleges have been used to intimidate or reduce the public’s right to speak. Her list included: changing board times, cutting time allotted to speakers, moving public comment to the end of meetings, removing chairs from the board room, censoring board tapes, paying the legal fees for one trustee’s “bogus” restraining order, and calling the employers of public speakers.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, more than five speakers expressed outrage at the idea that district superintendent Ed Brand would call someone’s employer.
Kevin O’Neill, who sits on the district’s Proposition O bond oversight board, explained to the trustees that a woman who had addressed them at a February meeting subsequently learned from her employer that Brand had called her boss, a captain in one of the branches of the armed services. According to O’Neill, Brand spoke to her captain about the woman expressing her opinion.
O’Neill used his three minutes to remind the trustees about First Amendment rights. He said, “This action is beyond the pale, and though this woman chooses to take the high road, if it were me, my attorney would be talking to your attorney.”
Later, during public comment, a woman who identified herself as having spoken about an information technology issue at the last meeting began her speech by reading a statement that said the opinions she expressed were her own — not her employer’s.
A similar concern was brought to the trustees’ attention by bond-oversight chair Nick Marinovich.
On February 21, Marinovich received a letter from the district’s attorney, Dan Shinoff, that read: “It has come to our attention that your conduct at the District’s most recent board meeting warrants our involvement. It is important that civility is maintained at all times when the Board is conducting their business.”
The letter inaccurately referred to a board meeting. A clarification letter followed from Shinoff; the warning was in regard to a bond-oversight meeting.
In a March 15 interview, Marinovich, said, “This is the first letter of reprimand I have received in my entire life.” Marinovich worked for the County of San Diego for 32 years.
“Sending letters like this just makes the district look foolish. They are not going to deter me from doing my job. The letter was not warranted. It is in reference to the entire bond-oversight committee — not just myself — asking hard questions of a district representative about iPad expenditures.”
Marinovich was recently named executive director of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees.
Brand and trustee Jim Cartmill did not respond to emails requesting comment.
Via email, trustee Bertha Lopez responded to the comments made at the March 11 meeting: "It is an inappropriate that a member of the public comes to comment on a matter before the board and the result ends in district staff calling their employer! Private citizens have the right to free speech and they are protected.... It seems that instead of finding ways to resolve concerns or to clarify issues, the best course of action is to silence individuals."