The majority of Steven Nelson's school board colleagues want to censure him -- but first, they had a few procedural hoops to jump through.
Nelson is under fire from several members of the Mountain View Whisman School District's board over his bullying behavior and "insulting" treatment of district staff. At the Thursday, Sept. 19, meeting, a vote on censuring the recently-elected trustee was set for the Oct. 3 meeting, after the board adopted new provisions outlining exactly how to censure a trustee.
The "Censure Policy and Procedure" was adopted in a 3-2 vote, after some of its most punitive language was removed. Nelson dissented on the vote and found an ally in Phil Palmer, who said he wanted to rewrite the policy to make it so a super majority of four trustees was required to officially censure a fifth trustee.
As it was passed, with Board President Ellen Wheeler, Chris Chiang and Bill Lambert voting in favor, it only requires a simple majority of three trustees to censure a colleague.
Elected last November, Nelson has ruffled the feathers of his fellow trustees, Superintendent Craig Goldman and other district staff. According to Wheeler, she and Bill Lambert have compiled evidence of Nelson's questionable conduct, which reportedly includes sending harshly worded emails and shouting at district administrators at the school district's headquarters.
Wheeler said she has seen many emails in which Nelson personally criticizes the performance of individual members of the district staff, particularly Goldman. Nelson has also been known to announce his dissatisfaction with district staff at board meetings. Not only are the emails "insulting," Wheeler said, they are also time-consuming and come at such a frequency that it makes it very difficult for Goldman to focus on his regular responsibilities.
"That's not the job of a school board member," Wheeler said, noting that in the 11 years she has served on the school board, she has never encountered another trustee who has acted the way Nelson has.
As a result, Chiang said he and Lambert began looking into the possibility of officially censuring Nelson. Chiang has said that he hopes censuring Nelson might result in a more congenial board.
When they began looking into censure, Chiang said they realized that the board's bylaws have very little guidance on how to take the action. Though Chiang made a point at the Sept. 19 meeting that there was no legal need to adopt official guidelines for censure, he said he personally wanted to make sure that the board did adopt such language in the interest of "fairness."
And so, at the Sept. 19 meeting, Lambert presented a draft of a formal "Censure Policy and Procedure."
During the public comment portion of the discussion of the policy, two community members spoke up. They never named Nelson explicitly, because the policy, in theory, is not meant specifically for Nelson but is intended for taking action against any board member. However Steve Sherman and Gloria Higgins made it clear in their comments that they were dissatisfied with the way Nelson has handled himself since being elected.
Nelson was elected to the board after promising voters that he would challenge district leaders when he felt they weren't doing a good job. He repeatedly has said he doesn't want to be a "rubber stamp" for the agenda of Superintendent Goldman
But it seems that in refusing to be a "rubber stamp," Nelson has crossed some lines. He readily admits that he has occasionally taken an unprofessional tone -- both in emails and in person -- when communicating with his fellow board members and district administrators.
According to some of his colleagues on the board, it has been more than occasional.
Chris Chiang, who was elected to the board at the same time as Nelson, said he and his colleagues have tried a number of things to get Nelson to change his behavior. "We've tried talking to Steve individually," Chiang said. "We've tried having a meeting that was mediated by a professional facilitator. None of it is working."
At the end of the meeting, Lambert suggested placing an motion to censure Nelson on a future agenda. With support from Wheeler and Chiang, the item was placed on the Oct. 3 agenda.