Things didn't quite hit showdown tenor last night at a special Capistrano Unified School District board meeting meant to address findings by the OC DA that four of the board's current members had repeatedly violated open meeting laws by holding illegal closed meetings. The meeting was scheduled for closed session but pressure from three newly elected board members to have the meeting in public won out last night.
The four "old-guard" trustees in question—Marlene Draper, Sheila Benecke, Duane Stiff and Mike Darnold—agreed that the meeting should be held in public given the "unique circumstances," said Marlene Draper. New Superintendent Woodrow Carter and Orange County Department of Education counsel Ron Wenkart favored holding the meeting in closed session. "I might not be comfortable answering questions in open session," Wenkart said. But trustees persisted.
Longtime "old-guard" trustee Duane Stiff moved to not only hold the meeting in open session, but to also accept the DA's findings without discussion. After some confusion, the board listened first to a round of scathing public comments, many which called for the resignation of some or all four of the board members in question, then proceeded to a vote. The board voted 4-0-3 (the three new board members abstained because they weren't there when the violations were committed) to accept the DA's findings. All seven board members voted to comply with the Brown Act in the future. "This is the total acceptance that bad things were done and that that can't be tolerated," said newly elected trustee Anna Bryson, who was not serving at the time of the violations. "This is what we were elected for, to change the course of the river."
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"There are many things I would do differently," said board President Marlene Draper. When asked if she would apologize for having repeatedly engaged in closed session meetings where everything from building contracts to student suspensions and public speakers were discussed, Draper said she would only say that she would not rely on legal counsel in the future. In her grand jury testimony, Draper said the board relied on OC Department of Ed legal counsel to approve all board agendas being held in closed session. But Ron Wenkart, who was OC Department of Ed counsel at the time, said he never approved closed session agendas for the district.