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A published letter from three Ramona Unified school board members that threw their support to two of the seven candidates vying for seats is “strong evidence” that the board members violated California laws on open public meetings, according to a public records expert.

School board members Bob Hailey, Christopher Smith and Luan Rivera signed a letter in the Ramona Sentinel recommending candidates Kim Lasley and Dawn Perfect for the seats being vacated by Hailey and Smith. One of the other board members, Rodger Dohm, said the issue was never discussed by the full board, and Terry Francke, founder and attorney for the open government nonprofit Californians Aware, said the letter was “strong evidence of a Brown Act violation.”

Under the Brown Act, it is illegal for a majority of a legislative body — such as a school board — to meet privately to discuss or hear issues related to their jurisdiction. Meetings must be open and advertised to the public.

“There had to have been a discussion among the three of them somehow to do this,” Francke said, “and that discussion should have taken place in an open or noticed meeting.” There is no exception in the Brown Act for discussing matters over e-mail or telephone, Francke said.

Hailey, Smith and Rivera could not be reached Thursday or Friday morning for comment on how they had created the letter and whether they believed it violated the law.

Voter Chuck Apgar, who is not running for a seat, said he was alarmed by the letter because it was unclear when the matter was discussed by the board, if at all.

“Where did they meet?” Apgar asked. “There certainly wasn’t a meeting with the other two members of the board.”

The Brown Act has been a recurring concern in the Ramona district, where members on both sides of its sometimes-split school board have invoked the act to question their peers’ actions. Dohm said closed session discussions have not been listed correctly on the agenda, preventing the public from knowing generally what has been discussed behind closed doors. The board has had training on the Brown Act, he said.

“I honestly believe this was sincerely a mistake,” Dohm said of his peers’ letter and the indication that the Brown Act was violated. “But at the same time the timing wasn’t good. Because we’ve gone over this over and over again.”

EMILY ALPERT

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