School district trustee may be censured

Colleagues accuse recently elected board member of unprofessional behavior

A pair of Mountain View Whisman School District board members are launching a formal investigation into the behavior of their colleague, Steven Nelson, with the intention of formally censuring the trustee for a lack of professionalism.

Board president Ellen Wheeler told the Voice that two of her fellow trustees -- Chris Chiang and Bill Lambert -- are drafting a motion to censure Nelson, who has reportedly sent harshly worded emails and shouted at district administrators at the school district's headquarters.

Steven Nelson
"People come up to me all the time to complain about the behavior of Steven Nelson as a board member," Wheeler said. As a result, the board is expected to take a vote on whether to approve the motion to censure Nelson at its Sept. 19 meeting.

For his part, Nelson said he wasn't entirely surprised that a censure was coming his way. He said he is aware that he has offended members of the board and the district administration.

"Ever since the election, the tone of Steve's emails with district staff and community members -- in my opinion, it's been alarming," Chiang said.

Nelson won a seat on the five-member school board in the November 2012 election, along with Chiang and Lambert. The longtime Mountain View resident has long been active in the school district, and before his election to the board he would frequently attend board meetings to speak out against policies he disagreed with -- often raising his voice in an attempt to get his point across.

Not much has changed since Nelson has become an official member of the board. The trustee still brings homemade charts to meetings and often goes off on long tangents when sharing his opinion on matters before the board. Nelson sometimes draws chuckles or eye-rolls with his behavior. On some occasions he has clearly upset members of the board and district administrators.

On Jan. 10, at one of the first board meetings after Nelson was elected, tensions flared and voices were raised as Nelson and Wheeler engaged in a pair of heated exchanges. During that meeting Nelson repeatedly cut off other trustees and Superintendent Craig Goldman. At one point, Lambert left the room abruptly in what appeared to be frustration.

Although Nelson acknowledged that he felt the Jan. 10 meeting had gotten out of hand, Chiang said his colleague has done little to curb his behavior since. In fact, both Wheeler and Chiang have said Nelson has continued to be excessively combative despite numerous public and private calls for him to dial down his rhetoric.

"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."

As proof of Nelson's failure to change his behavior, Chiang pointed to numerous emails sent by Nelson to district employees. In these correspondences, Nelson seems to suggest that if the recipient of the email disagrees with him or takes actions contrary to his advisement, that negative consequences will follow.

Wheeler said she has seen copies of the emails in question. She's seen many emails in which Nelson personally criticizes the performance of individual members of the district staff, particularly Goldman, she said. 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.

Some months ago, Wheeler said, there was an incident in which Nelson raised his voice in the district office while using language that was "extremely hostile."

Both Chiang and Wheeler said they weren't sure if it was Nelson's intention to come across as menacing. Nevertheless, they both agreed that something needs to change. Chiang said that he hoped an official censure might lead to more decorum on the board.

While Nelson was willing to acknowledge he has crossed some lines during his tenure as a trustee, he said that many of the things that have been upsetting to others are most likely the result of his personal style of dissent.

"I would have avoided these conflicts if I could," he said, explaining that he has had trouble making the transition from the role he felt he had as a voice of citizen opposition to his current role on the board. "It's hard to change some habits you get into with personal style."

Nelson said he views himself as the "farthest out" member of the board "in terms of thinking that the governance culture of this school district has a few things that need substantial changing."

Indeed, when the trustee was running for his position on the board he told voters he would not be a "rubber stamp" for the district -- that he would challenge things he disagreed with.

The way Nelson sees it, the upcoming motion for censure is in many ways the result of him being too enthusiastic in his disagreements with the district and Superintendent Goldman. "It's been rough," he acknowledged. "I think I've overstepped."

Board member Phil Palmer said he was unaware of any plans to censure Nelson and was reluctant to say much about his colleague. "He's a new board member," Palmer offered. "He's learning. This is a growing opportunity for him."


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