Steven Nelson, the embattled Mountain View Whisman School District trustee, found little support from his colleagues on the board last week. The local elementary and middle school district's governing board voted to publicly condemn Nelson for unprofessional behavior and violating the board's code of conduct, and stripped him of his position as clerk of the board.
But at least one local man said he believes that the MVWSD board may have gone too far by charging that Nelson had crossed the line for simply speaking his mind.
Gary Wesley, a general practice attorney based in Mountain View, said he is "worried about watchdogs being shut up" by a board that dislikes dissent. Wesley, who has worked as a lawyer for more than 30 years and handled cases involving Brown Act violations, public records act requests, and discrimination suits, said he is concerned the board is punishing Nelson for challenging the status quo.
With a few modifications, the board passed a resolution titled "Censure of Trustee Steven Nelson" at its Oct. 3 meeting. The censure also carried with it a punishment. Nelson has been removed from his position as the clerk for the board and of his position as observer for the board at meetings of district committees.
Before the vote, Nelson said he agreed he should be censured for a series of unprofessional emails and offensive outbursts at board meetings and at the district office. However, he argued that a document of "supporting evidence," which accompanied the censure resolution, contained many charges that he believed were not worthy of censure.
Many of the charges to which Nelson objected involved the trustee speaking out -- either at board meetings or in interviews with the press -- about board policies and actions that he opposed.
While trustees Phil Palmer and Chris Chiang saw some merit in Nelson's challenges, they ultimately joined board president Ellen Wheeler and Bill Lambert in approving the censure resolution shortly before 10 p.m.
But Nelson was already gone. The trustee walked out of the meeting about 10 minutes before the remaining trustees cast their votes. Earlier in the meeting, Nelson told the board that he had a flight to catch the following morning and wanted to get home before it got late. Up until the moment he left, however, it appeared he was prepared to stay as long as his fellow trustees would go through the list of supporting evidence line by line and hear his arguments as to which passages he felt were unfair.
His decision to leave came shortly after Chiang suggested that they work through the document and consider revisions in "broad strokes."
"Guys, go ahead and do it," Nelson said, before packing up his things. "I'm leaving... now. You guys can tell me what your vote is."
After the meeting, Lambert told the Voice that he wondered whether Nelson had only decided to leave once it became clear that things weren't going his way. Indeed, earlier in the meeting, Nelson seemed to be making inroads with trustees Chiang and Palmer in convincing them that significant portions of the supporting evidence document might be in need of revision.
But by the time he left, it was fairly clear that all four of his colleagues were prepared to vote for the censure motion without too many changes. At a previous meeting, Palmer expressed reservations about the idea of condemning Nelson for certain charges he deemed less serious. But at the Oct. 3 meeting, Palmer made it clear that he was prepared to support a censure, as he felt that many of the allegations facing Nelson were serious. In particular, Palmer said he was upset with a March 28 incident in which Nelson raised his voice and used profanity in the district office after a meeting with Superintendent Craig Goldman got heated.
Speaking to the press
While acknowledging he deserved to be censured for a number of transgressions -- including that March incident -- Nelson defended himself against other accusations he considered to be baseless or trivial.
Nelson insisted that he had not crossed any lines when he publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with Goldman in an interview with the Voice. The trustee said he was doing his job when he raised suspicions that the District Advisory Committee -- a group of community members that advises Goldman on ground-level developments at each of the district's schools -- was illegally constituted.
Nelson succeeded in getting his colleagues to strike a paragraph in the censure's supporting evidence document which stated he had violated board bylaws by raising his concerns over the District Advisory Committee. He did not succeed in getting them to strike or adjust the charge that he had been out of line in expressing his disagreement with Goldman when speaking to the Voice.
Wesley worried that the board was setting itself up for further problems down the road by deciding to censure Nelson and by approving the majority of the supporting evidence document in the process.
The lawyer said he was concerned with some of the same issues Nelson raised in defending himself. Wesley was particularly skeptical about language in the censure's supporting evidence document about Nelson speaking candidly to the Voice about his differences of opinion with Goldman.
The document reported that Nelson violated board bylaws when he "publicly expressed his independent view that he considered voting against the approval of (Goldman's) contract 'to drive home the point that he and Goldman are in disagreement over certain policies.'"
"That isn't remotely unlawful," Wesley said. "It violates his individual rights to free speech, but it also violates his duty as a board member."
Wesley said the language of the board's code of conduct for trustees is also flawed. He noted that the code of conduct instructs trustees to "model behavior which will cause the board and the superintendent to be perceived as an effective and efficient leadership team."
"What if the board is ineffective and inefficient?" he asked the board at the Oct. 3 meeting, saying that it is the duty of all board members to speak up when they feel something is wrong.
"They've added teeth that will bite any board member that speaks out," he told the Voice. "They've set a bad precedent."
At the conclusion of the meeting, both Goldman and Lambert expressed satisfaction that the censure had been approved.
"I'm grateful to the board in its support for a respectful and productive environment for our students, our community members and our employees," Goldman said after the meeting.
"I value him (Nelson) having statements and having differences of opinion, like all the other board members," Lambert said. "But, what really is important, when you're communicating those (differences of opinion) is that you show respect for others." Lambert said Nelson had not demonstrated the kind of respect and professionalism he should have in his interactions with the board, district staff members and the community.
When asked what he hoped would come of the censure in the future, Lambert had a one word answer: "Civility."