School of Hard Knocks
Fred Harper

School of Hard Knocks

The Spike loves a good public thumping, especially in cases where the public has been thumped first. And so The Spike is tickled to see that the wrongdoers at the Wilson Elementary School District are about to get a long-overdue comeuppance.

For the past couple years, two wayward school board members have been blatantly and shamelessly thumbing their noses at parents, staff and residents of the district -- just east of downtown Phoenix -- by ignoring the state's Open Meeting Law. Since at least January 2001 and continuing through the end of this past July, dozens of school board meetings (including numerous secret executive sessions) have been held without the required public notice and without letting the public know what was being discussed or voted on.

The two scofflaws in this case are RosaMaria Sudea and Hillaria Lopez -- two-thirds (and thus a majority) of the three-person school board. The two women repeatedly ignored warnings that the law was being seriously broken. They rejected pleas by Board Member No. 3, Mercedes Robles, to do things right. Instead, they ran roughshod over her.

Robles, by all accounts, continually told her two colleagues that actions they were taking were illegal. Robles objected often and routinely abstained from voting, on the grounds that the meetings and votes were unlawful.

Still, according to the Attorney General's Office, the other two merrily overruled her and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, entered into contracts and carried out personnel decisions, among other things, all on their own. Many times, the public had no idea what was going on.

This is because, as the AG puts it, Sudea and Lopez intended to deprive the public of information, and they did so in a number of ways that seem like something out of a bad Orson Welles movie.

For instance, the board frequently put out meeting agendas that didn't really say what was going to be discussed. And to add insult to injury, the public had to pay $1 just to get a copy of the "generic" agenda.

Meanwhile, the board had detailed private packets that included substantial information on matters of public interest, such as district financial information, new hires or contract provisions.

People who asked for these back-up materials -- commonly available at (or soon after) most other public meetings throughout the nation -- were told by the Wilson staff they couldn't have them. Often, when the board would vote on an item, all the public knew was that "Item 6," for example, had been approved.

But, according to the AG's Office, "the public had no idea about who had been hired, terminated, reassigned, etc., even though the board had voted on the matter."

Sudea and Lopez also wrote each other secret letters and memos about public matters. Privately, they figured out how they would deal with things, then come to board meetings and vote on matters without discussing them. So the public was never really able to examine the decision-making process.

In March, Sudea and Lopez decided to can popular superintendent Roger Romero along with his administrative assistant, another decision made in a secret session and then rolled out a few days later at a public meeting that was so hot, the cops had to control the crowd and keep them from storming the board meeting room.

Concerned parents and staff finally had had enough and called in the Attorney General. For months now, the Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team, a.k.a. OMLET, has been working on the complaints. And this gang has been breaking heads, not eggs.

Now, OMLET is pursuing tough legal action against Sudea and Lopez. A proposed consent judgment was to be taken up by the school board on Wednesday, September 4 (just a bit late for The Spike's deadline for this column, so watch for the exciting conclusion in a future issue).

The AG's Office wants Sudea and Lopez off the board. And a whole lot more. One provision of the agreement will prohibit them from holding a public post again for two years.

Wow. Yanking duly elected public officials from office (even if they agree to go quietly, it's still a forcible removal) is pretty serious business.

The AG also wants the two women to pay $1,000 each in civil penalties or, if they can't cough up the cash, do 100 hours of community service. And the state wants another $759 from each for the state's cost of sending OMLET after them.

The Spike's favorite part of the settlement is where Sudea and Lopez have to "personally apologize aloud to the public" at an open school board session. If only The Spike could spell nah na nah na nah nah.

Under the agreement, all actions taken at the illegal meetings for the past two years would be null and void. What this means in real life isn't clear yet. The Spike wondered if Romero will get his job back. And what about all those other hires and fires and contracts that have been put in place over the past couple years?

AG spokeswoman Pati Urias says no one knows yet what will happen with personnel or contract actions. Generally, she says, in cases like this a court is asked to decide what actions can be left in place and what needs to be reconsidered.

Still, much is at stake here. Besides the matter of axing the superintendent (the district still has not replaced him), the board spent tons of money. In one unlawful session, the board approved "expense and payroll vouchers" totaling more than $960,000 without releasing any details on where the money was actually going.

Under the proposed agreement, the board will have to make all the minutes, notes, recordings and other documents pertaining to the public meetings and executive sessions from the last two years available -- free. Back-up materials are to be provided to anyone who wants them for 10 cents a page.

As for Sudea and Lopez, The Spike says good riddance to bad rubbish. Sudea didn't return a call seeking comment, and there was no answer at Lopez's number.

Sudea is up for reelection this November and had already filed for the ballot with the county elections office. But the proposed agreement will thankfully thwart that effort.

Robles, who has been on the board since 1982, also is running again. She appears to have been the lone voice of sanity in this mess, which should be recognized by voters.

The Spike also is delighted with how well OMLET seems to work. This isn't the first time the AG's Office has stepped in and banged a few heads that thought they could end run the state's Open Meeting Law. There are a couple of ex-local officials in Glendale and Scottsdale who have already had their knuckles seriously rapped by OMLET.

Hmmm. The Spike thinks the AG (Note to Janet: it's not too late) should lend a similar hand to people who have trouble getting public records from local and, yes, state agencies (often the worst culprits). An assistant AG who understands the public records law, embraces the spirit of broad public access and has the authority to referee disputes would be a true public service

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