A lawsuit filed on Thursday by a nonprofit group will seek a court-ordered reversal of former president Mark Rocha’s $400,000 severance package, alleging that the Board of Trustees violated open-meetings laws.
Californians Aware, the group suing the school, claims that the Board hid the discussion of the severance package under the title of “anticipated litigation” on its closed session agenda items.
“There is no reference in any agenda for any Board meeting [that] indicated that the Board was discussing or took action to provide a severance package to Dr. Rocha,” the lawsuit states.
The suit also asserts that California Aware received a letter from Mary Dowell, attorney for the Board, saying that the Board had not violated the Brown Act and, therefore, the Board was “not obligated to ‘cure or correct’ any of its actions leading up to the final Agreement and Mutual General Release with Rocha.”
Californians Aware requested in its suit against the school that the Board “cure and correct” its mistakes and rescind Rocha’s severance package. It also calls on the court to force Rocha to return the money.
Furthermore, it asks that the board to “disclose each date and under which agenda item the Board discussed Rocha’s severance and/or resignation.”
Academic Senate President Eduardo Cairo said that based on what he had read in the suit, he thought the allegations sounded valid.
“The district never noticed or discussed Rocha’s retirement severance package…” Cairo said. “That’s a severe black eye on our Board of Trustees for them not to make this public.”
Cairo said that he didn’t think Rocha deserved to be compensated to retire if it was his choice and that he was in favor of Rocha being made to return taxpayer money.
He also said that the Senate was losing trust in the Board because of lawsuits like this.
“If you look at past Board agenda’s, you’ll see numerous ‘anticipated litigation’ items,” Cairo said. “You start to wonder what else is the Board lumping into these items, if they could put Rocha’s severance package in an item like that… Who was going to be possibly be suing the school in that case?”
Board members did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The college had announced Rocha’s retirement in late August, saying in a statement that he would receive $403,826, plus up to $16,000 in “reasonable” legal expenses from the District.
“The terms of the severance package are in the best interests of all parties,” Board President Anthony Fellow said in that prepared statement. “Despite challenges and concerns that Dr. Rocha faced from various College constituents groups, with the support of the Board, he continued in his mission to improve the College.”
In late 2013, the Board renegotiated Rocha’s contract to extend to 2017. The severance agreement was changed from only covering 6 months of severance pay to 18 months pay, which comes out to a little over $400,000.
This story has been updated.