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Faculty labor union lawsuit against Palomar College enters Escondido mayoral race

SAN MARCOS — On Sept. 25, the Palomar Faculty Federation Local 6161 filed a lawsuit against the Palomar College Governing Board in the Superior Court for the County of San Diego. Though Palomar College sits in San Marcos, the lawsuit’s tentacles reach directly into the mayoral race in neighboring Escondido.

The lawsuit, Palomar Faculty Federation Local 6161, Et Al v. Palomar Community College District, Et Al, alleges an illegal lack of transparency under California’s Brown Act on the part of the Palomar College Governing Board in giving a 27-percent pay raise to President Joi Lin Blake. The Brown Act, in essence, is the state’s open meetings law and calls for governmental body transparency in announcing and conducting public meetings.

The lawsuit further stipulates that the Brown Act was violated because it was never announced that there would be closed session discussions of Blake’s proposed salary boost before it received a Governing Board vote on July 10. One of those voting that day was Paul McNamara, the Governing Board’s president who also happens to be the challenger seeking to defeat Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and assume the job as the city’s mayor. McNamara’s campaign manager, Nina Deerfield — who also sits on the Governing Board — was the sole dissenting vote, with the Governing Board voting 4-1 on the matter.

Both McNamara and Deerfield declined to comment for the story, with Deerfield speaking on behalf of McNamara in doing so while also saying she cannot speak upon the advice of her attorney. While the Governing Board is a defendant in the lawsuit, so too are each of the individuals who sit on the board, including both McNamara and Deerfield.

At an August Governing Board meeting, according to the Palomar College student newspaper The Telescope, Blake’s salary got an inflation due to him meeting all of the mandated standards and benchmarks.

“(T)he Superintendent/President accomplished the goals and objectives established for her by the board, and exceeded many of the expectations over the last two years,” McNamara said, according to The Telescope.

Abed said he did not know about this particular lawsuit, but stated that he believed this was a blemish on a candidate, McNamara, who has run on a clean government reform ticket and often knocked Abed for doing the bidding of the city’s real estate development industry.

“I don’t have any personal knowledge of the allegations against Paul, but I’m saddened by the tone he’s taken in this election and by his lack of candor and honesty with voters,” Abed told The Coast News.

Political fallout or not, just as in the political arena, the legal fate of this case remains an open question in the weeks and month ahead.

Governmental bodies “may hold closed sessions with the local agency’s designated representatives regarding the salaries, salary schedules, or compensation paid in the form of fringe benefits of its … unrepresented employees,” reads the Brown Act. “However, prior to the closed session, the legislative body of the local agency shall hold an open and public session in which it identifies its designated representatives.”

Yet, the complaint says, none of that transpired.

Closed-session discussions pertaining to Blake’s salary contract, explained the faculty union’s attorney Ricardo Ochoa, must have taken place between Blake and no more than two designated officers. This is to ensure no reaching of a Governing Board quorum, which would in turn lock in Brown Act opening meetings legal obligations. In practice, this generally leads to a designated attorney reporting to the broader governmental body, so as to avoid too many metaphorical cooks in the kitchen and to provide the governmental official in question capable legal counsel, Ochoa further explained.

But in the case of the Palomar College Governing Board, Ochoa said that it appears the “cake was already baked” when they voted on July 10 for a salary increase, which he said means they had likely deliberated about the matter prior to making the vote and did so without the public notice mandated under the Brown Act.

The complaint cites a July 15 email written to one Palomar College Governing Board member by Palomar College’s Vice President for Human Resources Lisa Norman, which says that the Board “engaged in negotiations with Blake” about the contract “outside an agendized open and public meeting.” That contract, exhibited in the complaint, increases Blake’s salary from $252,782 per year to $292,027 per year, locks in post-employment health and dental benefits for the rest of her life post-retirement and ensures a post-employment lifetime payment from the Palomar College system of $15,000 pear year.

The faculty union has called for the Superior Court to void the contract and turn back the clock on the contract negotiation process, making it a more public endeavor as governed by the Brown Act. It has also asked the court to request for the Governing Board and its representatives in salary contract negotiations with Blake to “audio record its closed sessions and preserve the audio recordings for the period” so as to be available for potential future lawsuits and their accompanying pretrial discovery process.

Blake and her assistants did not respond to a request for comment by press time. The attorney representing the Governing Board in the lawsuit, Sharon Ormond, was out of the office when The Coast News attempted to reach her.

“The union is concerned and the faculty members are concerned that this is an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars that can be better spent on ways that are going to benefit the students and the community,” Ochoa told The Coast News.