Sweetwater Union High School District board meetings have often been chaotic and indecisive. But did anyone ever imagine this chaos would be replicated in a South Bay courthouse?
On April 24, when Sweetwater trustees Jim Cartmill and Bertha Lopez pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, judge Ana España ruled that they could continue to serve in their elected positions. España said she would take up the question of whether or not Cartmill and Lopez could run for reelection on their sentencing dates in June.
But on May 8, España entered the courtroom prepared to reverse her finding based on information submitted by the school district’s attorney, Randall Winet. Referring to California Code 1770.2, Winet argued that as soon as Cartmill and Lopez entered a guilty plea they should have been suspended from their office.
Winet emphasized the urgency of the situation, as Sweetwater has large financial decisions to make by the end of this month. He pointed out that there are currently only three seated trustees. Given the ramifications of the statute (1770.2), Winet said the San Diego County Board of Education needs to be able to appoint provisional boardmembers to replace Cartmill and Lopez.
Game over? Not yet, according to trustee Cartmill’s attorney, Thomas Warwick. Warwick told the judge he had been out of town and barely had a chance to review the material Sweetwater submitted.
España said to Warwick, “At your request I made a finding; I was not aware of the government code [that calls for suspension at the time a plea is entered]."
But, Warwick said he would prepare a brief that will demonstrate that in similar cases (state Fair Political Practices Commission misdemeanors), other elected officials have been allowed to remain in office.
“Eighty-six school board members [in Sacramento] violated the same code and were not removed from office,” alleged Warwick. He also suggested that if the judge changed her mind, it might have “a domino effect.”
If Cartmill and Lopez change their plea to not guilty, according to the statute, they would no longer be on suspension from the board.
A further extenuating circumstance was introduced to the proceedings. For personal reasons, Lopez’s attorney removed himself from Lopez’s case. A replacement attorney was appointed on May 7.
Both Warwick and deputy district attorney Leon Schorr said ultimately the removal of the trustees falls on the district. However, if the trustees do not agree to leave, it would be up to the state attorney general to remove them.
España set May 13 as the date to return to the question. In the meantime, Winet acknowledged in an interview after the court adjourned that, for now, España’s ruling is in place; a court order allows Cartmill and Lopez to continue to serve.
The chaos and uncertainty in the district is aggravated by several other circumstances. Trustee John McCann is making a bid for Chula Vista City Council June 3 and may need to vacate his seat. And, school-district superintendent Ed Brand’s contract may automatically rollover in June; yet, he has never been evaluated.