E-mails and other documents obtained by the Pasadena Weekly indicate the Altadena Library Board of Trustees may have violated the state’s open meeting law more than 80 times since May 30, 2017.
In a possible example of this, personal emails of trustees indicate the board failed to post online agendas and minutes for a meeting that was scheduled to take place at Loma Alta Park on Aug. 17, 2017, and another meeting at the park’s recreation center the following month.
In court documents, attorney Dale Gronemeier alleges the board violated the Ralph M. Brown Act 83 times, mostly in chain emails. Gronemeier is representing embattled Library Director Mindy Kittay, who went on sick leave from January to May, at which time she was placed on paid administrative leave.
Since her departure, the library district has been run on an interim basis by Ryan Roy. Roy, the PW has learned, is leaving the post on Sept. 21.
“I am writing to inform you that I will be resigning from my position with the Altadena Library District as the Acting District Director (and the Public Services Director),” wrote Roy in a letter obtained by the Pasadena Weekly. “My last day of work will be September 21.”
“The library now has no staff who could competently run the library with Ryan Roy leaving,” Gronemeier said via email. “The board continues to fiddle while the library burns.”
The board was scheduled to meet in a special meeting Wednesday, Sept, 5, at the Altadena Library to discuss the appointment of a new acting director.
The alleged open meeting law violations were revealed after a Public Records Act (PRA) request resulted in the release of thousands of messages to and from several board members from May 30, 2017 to Feb. 26. So far, one former board member, John McDonald, has not turned over his personal emails, according to Gronemeier, who has filed a lawsuit to obtain those documents. McDonald left the five-member board earlier this year.
Along with facing civil legal action, board members could find themselves testifying before the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury. At the urging of a local activist, Sussy Nemer, senior field deputy to Supervisor Kathryn Barger, said Barger would recommend the matter to the civil grand jury. “At your request, Supervisor Barger will suggest to the Grand Jury that they look into the Altadena Library District,” Nemer wrote to Altadena resident and local activist Rene Amy. “Additionally, we will be referring these allegations to the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division. They have the ability to investigate Brown Act and other possible violations as well as other issues related to elected individuals or bodies,” Nemer wrote.
The civil grand jury has investigative powers over the operations, accounts and records of local government agencies, including school districts, Altadena is an unincorporated community governed by the county.
The alleged Brown Act violations are listed in a pleading compiled by Gronemeier, who is representing Kittay. The pleading demands that the library board cease and desist violating the law.
According to Gronemeier, the board violated the Brown Act by conducting illegal meetings via email and failing to vote in public. The board, Gronemeier alleges, also attempted to restrict the public’s right to speak during board meetings.
Accoring to Gronemeier, the first violation occurred in May 2017 involving Kittay’s annual performance review when Board member Ira Bershatsky solicited feedback from other board members in a chain email.
The Brown Act prohibits a board majority from having any meetings or discussions outside of agendized board meetings where the public can comment.
On June 27, 2017 Bershatsky sent an email with the subject “Your thoughts on this agenda item for next month” to the entire board.
In another case, board members appeared to be setting Kittay up to take the blame if issues arose on an agenda for a special meeting.
“I suggest Mindy prepare the entire agenda and the notice for the special meeting. This way we are protected if the agenda or notice is missing an operative word,” Trustee Armando Zambrano to his fellow board members.
Gronemeier said the two sides fell out after Kittay began warning board members about violating the Brown Act. After Kittay reminded members to operate within the law, Bershatsky wrote, “I suggest that you remember that you work for us. We do not work for you.”
Kittay went out on medical leave on Jan. 23 and still has not returned to her job.
“I just want to return to work and continue to do what I am passionate about,’ said Kittay in a statement released in April by Gronemeier and his law partner Elbie Hickambottom Jr.. The attorneys have advised Kittay to not speak with the press.
“I love this community and I feel that I do have much more to contribute,” Kittay said through them.
Kittay came to the library in 2014 and initially ruffled feathers of some staff members who claimed she was too demanding in her desire to see changes made.
Eventually, she won over some staff members, but then found herself opposed by board members after she began calling them out for allegedly breaking the law by violating the Brown Act.
“The former male majority was incensed at her standing up for the open government principles embodied in the Brown Act,” Gronemeier wrote. “What happened as a result is that the former male majority’s governance went underground because the dirty work of retaliating against Director Kittay and governing in violation of the Brown Act’s transparency principles could not operate.”
In an Oct. 26 email, board members discussed via email the possibility of limiting public comments to Altadena residents.
The board also may have held two secret meetings at the Loma Alta Park recreation center on Aug. 10 and Sept. 20, 2017.
According to the pleading, the first meeting was attended by McDonald, Bershatsky, Zambrano and Adilila Zelada-Garcia. Trustee Gwendolyn McMullins did not participate in the meeting but did participate in the email deliberations that set up the meeting. Although notice of the meeting was posted at a local library, so far there is no record of the meeting on the library district’s website.
“McDonald wanted the meeting to ascertain board sentiment for ‘a motion to not renew her [Director Kittay’s] contract.’ The Board deliberated at the closed meeting on false assertions made by John McDonald that there were irregularities in the compensation paid employees, including the compensation of Director Kittay,” Gronemeier wrote.
A second meeting was scheduled for Sept. 20 to discuss Kittay’s contract and personnel action. No minutes have ever been posted on the library’s website.
“While admitting the board has systematically operated unlawfully may be a bitter pill to swallow, the library board needs to move toward truth and reconciliation, acknowledge its past wrong-doing, and bring Director Kittay back to resume its leadership,” Gronemeier said. “If it doesn’t, the library’s downward spiral will accelerate.”