The College of the Desert's Board of Trustees scrapped plans Friday to hear presentations on the school's strategic and educational master plans and the status of major construction projects after board members and others raised concerns that the public did not have adequate notice of the meeting's agenda.
The special Board of Trustees meeting was called Thursday on 24 hours' notice to announce a Friday board workshop as well as the presentations on the strategic plans and nearly $1 billion in capital projects financed by bond measures, including a stalled new campus slated for Palm Springs.
Trustees said they had been notified weeks in advance about the board workshop, which typically occurs annually, but some were surprised by the late addition of the presentations to the agenda.
The meeting’s agenda was not published online until Thursday morning, and did not include supporting documents. Some trustees said they were unaware until Thursday that presentations would be made outside the Friday workshop.
Trustees Fred Jandt and Bonnie Stefan raised concerns about giving the community enough time for input.
“My concern is transparency. ... our community is asking for us to be transparent, and I'm just concerned that how this developed seems to fly against that,” Jandt said. “I have no objection to these items being considered. It's just the last-minute notice.”
Local governments are required to post agendas 72 hours before regularly scheduled board meetings; however, meetings outside of the regular schedule require only 24 hours' notice, according to the Brown Act, California's sunshine law for local government.
COD attorneys said Thursday that Friday's meeting "is outside of the regular schedule, and therefore the requirement is to post the agenda at least 24 hours in advance."
Stefan, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said she received a message about the special meeting on Thursday night, and until then, “I thought it was just a board retreat, and I looked at the agenda and then found out there were other items on it,” she said.
However, Trustee Aurora Wilson, attending the meeting in person with Board Chair Ruben Perez as well as Superintendent/President Martha Garcia, and said she had seen the agenda “well in advance.”
Wilson told other trustees: “I would also recommend that you know I saw this agenda well in advance. And if you had any questions about any of the items on the agenda, you pick up the phone and call the President.”
Trustee Bea Gonzalez was absent due to a family emergency.
After Jandt proposed removing the presentations from the meeting's agenda, Perez, Wilson and Stefan agreed.
Wilson did not immediately respond to a phone call and email after the meeting to clarify what she had seen on the agenda and when.
Perez: Presentations intended to improve transparency
After weeks of confusion and concern among community members, the college’s bond oversight committee and trustees about the status of various bond projects, including the Roadrunners Motors automotive repair facility, Perez said he had asked Garcia to add the informational presentations on the college’s plans to Friday’s agenda.
During Friday's meeting, Perez said that the board was never intending to vote on action items on Friday based on the reports.
“In an effort to be more transparent, I asked Dr. Garcia to put these items on the agenda in order for us to inform the community what's going on with these projects at the college. It was never our intention to not be transparent. These items are informational," he said.
"And to be honest … we did not need to go over them today. But because of the demands of the community, I thought it would be important for us to go over these items in a timely manner because of everything that's going on," Perez added. "However, if the public does feel like we're not being transparent, then we can always go over these items again at the next meeting.”
After Friday's meeting, Perez explained in an email to The Desert Sun that the board retreat was previously planned in November when Wilson was board chair. Then, the meeting was postponed until January to accommodate a trustee's schedule, and he, having become board chair in December, and Garcia finalized the agenda late Wednesday evening.
Perez said it is the board chair's responsibility to finalize meeting agendas with Garcia, and the two of them agreed late Wednesday evening to add the informational presentations to Friday's agenda.
"The latter part of the agenda were strictly information and an effort to be more transparent and give information to the public that they have been asking for, as quickly as possible. The informational presentations were an effort to have (the) public as informed as possible before our regular meeting on January 21st, where actions do get taken."
He added: "We acknowledge due to the current climate some more time to process the information would have been helpful for the public, which is why we voted 4-0 on Trustee Jandt's recommended motion. That was not a problem, we want our community to be informed. I encourage the public to tune in and participate at our January 21st meeting."
Palm Springs leaders have asked COD to provide information about the scope and timeline of the long-planned $350 million college expansion at the site of the old mall at East Tahquitz Canyon Way and Farrell Drive.
In addition, there is ongoing tension between the city and the college about a plot of land near Tramview Road in north Palm Springs. The city acquired the land and gave it to COD for a new campus before the college acquired the mall site and shifted its plans there. The property remains zoned for educational purposes. However, the college now wants to sell the property to a home developer who wants to buy it for $5.7 million — assuming it can be rezoned for housing.
Meanwhile, Palm Springs is continuing to use an outside legal firm to represent it on issues regarding the college as the city has yet to come to an understanding with COD and the law firm Best, Best & Krieger over a possible conflict of interest. Both the city and the school typically use the same law firm.
On Thursday evening, Palm Springs Councilmember Geoff Kors expressed disappointment that the agenda for Friday's COD trustees meeting had been posted on short notice — even if that was technically legal.
"It's my understanding that this meeting was scheduled weeks ago. To wait to the very last moment to put it on the website, which you have to go search for to find, and not to give any heads up to the public, the media, the city councils, the school district partners seems to be, incredibly, the antithesis of transparency."
During Friday’s meeting, Andrew Jared, an attorney for the city of Palm Springs, called in during the public comment section to say that the city and the college have appeared to have different definitions of transparency, and he was glad to see the trustees' motion to postpone hearing the presentations to give the community more time for input.
Palm Springs resident Sydney Weisman also called in to say she thought Garcia's decision to blame staff for a months-long failure to find a document available on the college's own website — a document Garcia said was needed to advance construction on the Palm Springs campus — was "the height of hubris."
"I would like to see a more mature inclusive and expansive view of the College of the Desert system throughout this region," Weisman added. "The entire region needs education for all of the children, and I think the failure of leadership on the part of the board and Dr. Garcia is a terrible example for the students you claim you want to educate."
Garcia: 'I assure you we're doing the right thing'
Garcia was appointed last summer in a split 3-2 vote by trustees. Since then, she has called for bond projects to be reviewed in light of more recent data on demographics and workforce needs.
"Data-driven decisions are vital," she said Friday.
Garcia has asserted multiple times in recent weeks that she is committed to transparency. City officials in both Cathedral City and Palm Springs say questions linger about what data Garcia still needs to see and how and where her administration would spend bond money if it proceeds to reallocate funds approved by taxpayers and already budgeted for the Roadrunner Motors facility and the Palm Springs campus.
Some of those questions might have been addressed during the informational presentations pulled from the agenda.
After hearing public comments Friday, Garcia said: "I assure you we are doing the right thing and that I'm providing proper recommendations in spite of the fact that it is publicized that I'm doing the opposite."
Workshop on good governance
Stan Carrizosa, a retired superintendent/president of College of the Sequoias, a community college in Visalia, presented a workshop to Garcia and the board on communications and governance best practices.
Carrizosa said that effective boards have clear communications protocols between the college superintendent/president, board members, faculty and the community.
He added that all board members have an obligation to the entire community college district, not just their constituents. "It means sometimes you have to sit down and discuss with your constituents why you're not going to do what they want you to do because 'I'm part of a team.'"
Carrizosa also advised the board not to micro-manage and to work together to set priorities that help the college achieve goals related to its mission and its master plan.
Acknowledging that the board is having communications issues, Carrizosa said, "These are the kinds of protocols and operating procedures that will help you navigate those tough waters."
Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach him at email@example.com or @Writes_Jonathan.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: College of the Desert trustees meeting criticized on transparency