The Fine Art of Duping the Public

Consent agendas do make meetings shorter, but they are a great way to hide serious and often expensive decisions from the public. -- 

Robert Wechsler

Director of Research, City Ethics 


Public boards have a lot to oversee. And because not everything can -- or should -- be discussed at length in monthly or bi-monthly meetings, consent agendas exist. They allow boards to vote on many routine, non-controversial items with a single motion, thereby saving time. Board members give very little attention to the consent agenda as, in most cases, the understanding is that those items are  just business as usual. That understanding is based on a foundational trust among all stakeholders -- president, board members, and the public.


But consent agendas can be abused, and here at Palomar, President Blake has demonstrated a pattern of using  the consent agenda in order to pass significant items while avoiding the scrutiny of public discussion. In this way, she has been able to advance potentially controversial items before those plans are discovered or disclosed.  By the time anyone finds out, considerable funds have already been spent, contracts have been signed, and whatever it is that she wanted to accomplish is either a done deal or nearly so.

 

Case #1: The Governing Board’s Lawyer

Blake hired Regina Petty to act as counsel for the Board without discussion with trustees. Her contract was signed 6 weeks before the item was placed on the consent agenda along with dozens of other unremarkable contracts. Although the hiring of counsel may seem, on the surface, like routine business, the details of this transaction suggest otherwise. 


First, Ms. Petty and President Blake have been acquaintances for close to twenty years. Second, the contract awarded to Ms. Petty is extraordinarily generous in that she earns $675 per hour, which is over twice the customary fee for such counsel.  And finally, Ms. Petty racks up significant billable hours by attending many, if not most, of the Board meetings. For example, the July 9th meeting lasted 6.5 hours (including two closed sessions) and Ms. Petty was present for the entire time, earning over $4,300 for a single meeting. 


Because it was on the consent agenda, Ms. Petty’s contract (and its financial details) was not a part of the materials available to trustees or the public. Ms. Petty's name does not appear on the consent agenda (only the name of the firm is listed), thereby obscuring the conflict of interest between Blake and Petty.


Case #2: Student Housing 

The most important aspect of a proposal of this magnitude is that it is objectively researched and appropriately executed. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) recommends that public agencies considering public/ private partnerships ensure that decisions are made based on balanced, unbiased information. ULI also suggests that, prior to making any decisions, the agency makes extensive efforts  to reach consensus with all stakeholders including providing various venues for public input, involvement, and collaboration. 

 

Palomar’s Governing Board held two informational meetings in which The Scion Group LLC, a company with a vested interest in the student housing market, made informational presentations to trustees.  Using an unscientific survey (in which Scion refuses to make public their methods and tools), the group concluded that there was a market demand for student housing at Palomar College. 

 

After these two meetings, Blake placed the item to proceed on a consent agenda.  There was no outreach to local businesses, no discussion with officials in the City of San Marcos, no workshops that would allow for broad discussion and meaningful input. The only opportunity for an individual to provide information and/or opinion was to speak formally for five minutes before the vote was taken, and even this scant opportunity was quashed by Board President, Mark Evilsizer.


The Brown Act requires boards to listen to public input prior to making a decision. However, Evilsizer did not allow me to speak prior to the vote, despite the fact that I had turned in a card to do so.  After contesting this, Evilsizer allowed me to make public comment but it was after the vote, in violation of the Brown Act. After I spoke, Trustee Deerfield asked that the student housing item be pulled from the consent agenda for separate consideration and discussion. Evilsizer demanded that Deerfield make a formal motion to have it pulled, at which time, all three of the other board members present - Halcon, Evilsizer, and Hensch -- refused to second Deerfield’s motion. 


Robert’s Rules of Order state that any item on the consent agenda must be moved off at the request of any individual member of the body.  The Board cannot force a unanimous vote on any item that may not have had unified approval. In this case, the board blocked Trustee Deerfield from considering and voting on this item. It took me protesting this action at two subsequent board meetings before the item was then placed on the regular agenda and passed with a 3 - 2 vote (Deerfield and Miyamoto dissenting). There was absolutely no attempt at consensus building for a project that could have serious financial repercussions for Palomar.


Case #3: The Supplemental Retirement Plan (SRP)

Given the fact that the college hasn’t quite recovered financially or workload-wise from the last one, it may come as a surprise to know that plans are underway for yet another SRP. One big reason it’s a surprise is that—you guessed it—Blake is laying the groundwork through the consent agenda.


The July 9, 2019 consent agenda included a $20,000 extension of an existing contract to BrightPath Consulting Services to provide a SRP financial analysis. Although the feasibility study was commissioned at the end of April, this topic did not come before the board until the July meeting. Both Trustees Miyamoto and Deerfield objected to the fact that Blake had placed the SRP item on the consent agenda instead of a regular agenda where more discussion, information and input could have been considered. Blake claimed that it was on the consent agenda due time constraints.


As with other consent agenda items, the actual contract language and scope of work was not available to the trustees or the public prior to the vote. The description of the item as an extension of an existing contract is misleading in that the scope of work BrightPath Consulting currently provides the college is entirely different than a SRP financial analysis. BrightPath is currently contracted to broker the college’s employee health benefits. Their website barely mentions retirement plans and it is unclear whether they have any experience in doing a financial analysis for a SRP. BrightPath Consulting Services is a small company that was incorporated 3 years ago and specializes in brokering health benefits.  


The industry standard for this work is the Public Agency Retirement Services (PARS) which has 35 years experience and has helped over a thousand public agencies administer SRPs.  Why did Blake choose a start-up company with little to no experience in SRPs over a proven leader in the field? And why did she conceal this item on the consent agenda without public discussion? 


Stay tuned for more developments on this issue ...


The Governing Board agenda is the joint responsibility of the college president and the board president.  On multiple occasions, concerns have been raised that Blake is abusing the consent agenda to conceal controversy and  to advance her personal agenda. The Board President, Mark Evilsizer, has been a trustee for seventeen years. He knows the rules. He knows that his job is to provide oversight over the college, yet he continues to support President Blake no matter what, and trustees Halcon and Hensch fall right in line.  At this point, with the support of a majority of the board, unless an outside agency steps in, Blake will be able to pass anything.


Instead of Better Together, Blake’s motto seems to be Better If You Don’t Know.


Excerpt from  The Brown Act:

Public commissions, boards, councils and other legislative bodies of local government agencies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. The people do not yield their sovereignty to the bodies that serve them. The people insist on remaining informed to retain control over the legislative bodies they have created. 

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