ASO leaders joined the editorial board of the Southwestern College Sun in condemning Dean of Student Affairs Mia McClellan and ASO Elections Coordinator Felipe Huicochea for barring student journalists from covering an impromptu, unposted meeting of the ASO Elections Committee.
Huicochea convened the meeting to discuss a protest lodged by Steve Whiting, who had run for ASO President. Sayaka Ridley was declared the winner by a margin of 52-43 percent, but Whiting appealed the results because of what he said were violations of campaign rules.
Reporters from The Sun routinely cover ASO meetings. Huicochea, however, asked all members of the public, including journalists, to leave the room so the committee could meet in closed session. Sun staff initially refused to leave and attempted to make the case that they had a statutory right to cover the meeting.
“I understand your need to report accuracies,” said Huicochea. “However, we need time to discuss this without any outside influence.”
McClellan asked Sun staff to exit the meeting because the committee needed to meet and deliberate privately.
“Just like you cannot be around for the vote counting, you can not sit in on this closed session,” she said. “The elections board does not fall under the Brown Act and you do not have to be in here.”
After repeated requests by reporters from The Sun that they be allowed to remain in the room, McClellan said the reporters could leave a recorder.
“You are welcome to leave a recorder in the room,” she said. “They just need time to deliberate amongst themselves.”
McClellan said in the closed session that the elections board is exempt from the Brown Act.
“For clarification, the Brown Act does require the ASO to post agendas of their committees,” she told the committee. “This board does not fall under the same guidelines.”
ASO President Laura Jessica Del Castillo disagreed. She issued a statement later that day condemning the actions of McClellan and the elections board. Del Castillo cited the ASO Bylaws and Constitution requiring the elections board to follow parliamentary procedure and state meeting laws.
“Let me be very clear in stating that in order for the Election Board to hold meetings there must be an agenda posted, there must be space for public comment… and most definitely all meetings must be held in open session,” wrote Del Castillo. “For our organization, closed meetings are ILLEGAL. I am extremely disturbed and disappointed that these rules have not been followed.”
She expressed her disappointment at the elections board for violating these rules and for ejecting journalists from the meeting.
“As a body of the ASO having violated these regulations, please apologize to the students that were involved in this misunderstanding, including members of the public, ASO officers, ASO candidates, and the Southwestern College Sun newspaper,” Del Castillo wrote.
President-Elect Ridley said the Brown Act applies to all ASO meetings and committees, and that by barring members of the community and the student media the ASO gives the impression that it is not transparent. She said she plans to dedicate her term in office to improving transparency of the ASO to the public and restoring trust.
“ASO needs to be more transparent and let the community know what is going on,” said Ridley. “Actions like these hinder the ASO from showing transparency.”
Once the closed session ended, two Sun staff members returned to recover the recorder and were told by Huicochea and McClellan that anything recorded during the closed session could not be used in the newspaper.
“We have to tell them that they cannot report what was said,” said Huicochea. “We did not take an official decision on anything.”
McClellan told a Sun reporter that nothing official was decided at this meeting.
“No official comments were made in this closed session,” said McClellan. “They can not report anything since no actions were taken.”
Another ASO committee meeting was held later that day and Sun staffers were admitted without incident.
SWC Sun Editor-in-Chief David McVicker said he was “very disappointed” that an ASO committee would exclude student journalists and that McClellan had given students “some very bad advice.”
“Student government is funded by taxpayer dollars and fees paid by students of this college, therefore the public has the right of access to ASO meetings at every level,” he said. “Nobody will remember in five years that the ASO Elections Committee had a meeting, but they will remember that, once again, Dean McClellan and some members of the ASO do not honor transparency and open government.”
McClellan was at the center of a California Public Records Act controversy in the fall when she refused to release documents related to the college’s new online parking registration program. After three months, a CPRA request and direction from supervisors, McClellan released the documents.
Southwestern College has been severely criticized within the last four years by the San Diego County Grand Jury, San Diego County District Attorney, the ACLU, FIRE and numerous news media organizations across America for Brown Act violations, secretive meetings, lack of cooperation releasing public documents, and other First Amendment and CPRA violations. In 2010 the Thomas Jefferson Center named SWC one of the nation’s worst First Amendment violators.
Governing board members Tim Nader, Norma Hernandez, Humberto Peraza and Nora Vargas all pledged as candidates to improve transparency at the college and improve public trust. President Dr. Melinda Nish also pledged to move the college toward transparency when she spoke at a candidate’s forum before she was hired.
McVicker said The Sun will continue to serve in a watchdog role.
“This college we all love is still working to restore its reputation,” he said. “This sort of thing does not help.”