Residents, the Del Paso Heights Community Association and an army of volunteers enlisted by the Democratic Party of Sacramento County are working to overturn a Twin Rivers Unified school board appointment, saying it was done illegally and without community input.
The groups have been hitting the streets of North Sacramento every day since Saturday in an attempt to meet a Wednesday deadline to gather 1,083 valid signatures calling for a special election to fill the Area 5 seat that represents North Natomas and Robla.
If successful, they will unseat Sonja Cameron, who was appointed by the Twin Rivers Unified school board Dec. 8, and will set in motion a special election that could cost the district more than $700,000.
Cameron, the chief operations officer of a charter school network based in Rio Linda, was appointed to the seat vacated by Cortez Quinn, who pleaded no contest to a felony in October and is serving an eight-month county jail sentence. The seat will be up for election again in 2016.
Kerri Asbury, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, said she doesn’t like to call this a recall effort. “It’s not about the person,” she said. “It’s about the process.”
The controversy started after school board members changed plans to make the final selection for the seat at a Dec. 11 meeting. Instead, after interviewing 13 candidates on Dec. 8, they appointed Cameron. She was at the top of a majority of the board members’ score sheets, trustee Linda Fowler told The Bee the next day.
The motion to accept Cameron as the new trustee was unanimous.
Asbury, who also is a teacher in the Twin Rivers district, said the school board violated the state’s open meeting laws that night because the appointment was not on the agenda, the meeting did not include a required period of public comment and trustees scored candidates in secret.
“It’s a frustration with the process and another example of a board, Twin Rivers Unified in particular, railroading the public,” Asbury said. “It’s about holding these folks accountable for running a just and ethical process.”
The board did nothing wrong, said school board President Rebecca Sandoval. Making an early decision, if a majority of the board favored one candidate, was discussed at the beginning of the meeting, she said. The final vote was taken in open session, and a community meeting in Area 5 on Dec. 1 provided for public comment, she said.
“For people to say there was a Brown Act violation ... that doesn’t hold water,” she said. “There was no violation.”
The agenda for the Dec. 8 meeting, located on the district website, stated that the board would interview all the candidates and score them to determine if they would be invited to a “second-round interview” on Dec. 11.
Residents expected the board to follow the process the district outlined for filling the seat, said Sascha Vogt, named as a proponent on the petition that has been circulating. “I don’t think people were happy with the process.”
A “cure and correct” letter, prepared by Sacramento Democratic Party attorneys on behalf of Vogt and the Del Paso Heights Neighborhood Association, has been sent to school district officials asking them to set aside Cameron’s appointment and to schedule a special election for Trustee Area 5. The district has 30 days from the time it received the letter to respond.
The petition states that a special election would cost approximately $113,040 if held in Trustee Area 5 and $708,570 if held districtwide. Both figures are included because it’s unclear which residents would be eligible to cast votes if the petition drive succeeds. The confusion stems from the fact that Quinn was re-elected in 2012 when Twin Rivers held districtwide elections. That same year voters passed Measure G, which required trustees in future elections to run for office in their home districts.
So, do the same people who voted in Quinn’s election in 2012 decide who fills the seat, or should only Trustee Area 5 residents be eligible to vote? County schools chief David Gordon said he is hoping lawyers will be able to offer guidance by early next week. He said the County Office of Education, Twin Rivers Unified and the Sacramento County elections department are working together to decide who would be eligible to vote if there is an election.
Del Paso Heights Association President Greg Jefferson said residents worked hard to pass Measure G to ensure that all neighborhoods have an opportunity for representation on the school board. “By appointing (Cameron), instead of having an election, it disadvantages the minorities in the community,” he said.
Gordon can’t recall the last time an appointed trustee was unseated by a petition drive calling for a special election. He also couldn’t remember the last time a special election was called to fill a vacated board seat. “The cost has always been a major impediment, because it’s so expensive,” he said. “In recent years districts have had to be very mindful of their costs, because you are basically taking it right out of the classroom. You don’t have any reserve for that purpose.”
Vogt said she doesn’t believe the price of the election is too high. “What price are you going to put on someone’s right to vote?” she said. “There is a cost to a lot of things that the Twin Rivers board decides to spend that is debatable.”
Board President Sandoval says the money would best be used in the classroom. “Let’s start talking about the children,” she said. “... We are rebuilding the Grant Union High School pool. We have to make improvements to the Rio Linda High pool. How much can be bought for the cost of this election?”
Despite the involvement of the Democratic Party, Vogt said the petition drive is a grass-roots effort, and parents are taking the lead. “At what point different people became involved I don’t know,” she said. “We can get the signatures without the precinct walkers. They are our insurance.”
Vogt said half of the signatures that are required had been collected by Wednesday afternoon. “We’re confident we will have them,” she said.
Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.