Kern Community College District trustees voted 4-2 Thursday to appoint Bill Thomas, a 15-term congressman and former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to fill a vacant seat on the dais. He will serve a full two-year term — but indicated he has no intention of defending his seat in 2018.
Within a half hour of taking his seat alongside the other trustees, Thomas began taking Chancellor Sandra Serrano to task for alleged miscommunication and strife between her administration and the academic senate.
At issue was a proposed budget that included funding a public-relations representative at the district level, something the Bakersfield College Academic Senate has opposed for months. Senate representatives attempted to hold meetings with the chancellor to discuss the matter, but those meetings were pushed off and never happened, Academic Senate President Steve Holmes said.
“The request was denied?” Thomas asked. “We’ve got a whole summer where there could have been a meeting.”
Serrano delivered some “historical context” of the position and the need for an external government relations employee, telling Thomas that she hoped it cleared things up.
“Actually, it doesn’t for me. I heard ‘by the board, for the board,’ and I, frankly, am a strong advocate of ‘by the board, for the colleges,’” Thomas said. “I had just heard the discussions from the academic senate at the college object to what is occurring and the attempt to resolve the differences — the meeting — was even denied. That sounds to me like this item is ‘by the board, for the board.’”
“You can shake your head, but the college faculty is telling me that they’re not satisfied,” Thomas said, gesturing toward Serrano.
Then board members began discussing whether they would have been violating a board policy somewhere along the way.
“This is a charge I’ve heard repeatedly since I’ve been here: ‘did we violate anything?’” Thomas said in the second hour of the meeting. The first was a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law.
Thomas ultimately swayed the board to strike the position from the budget.
After the meeting, Thomas said that putting an end to arguments that “stop substance by arguing process” is something he’ll continue to do on the board.
Despite Thomas taking charge of the board meeting, his appointment was not without some controversy amid a perceived violation of the Brown Act and accusations that the selection process was unethical and flawed.
Both Trustee John Corkins and an applicant, former trustee John Rodgers, criticized Trustee Romeo Agbalog, the chairman of the search committee, for what they perceived as a flawed process. Corkins, who said he got his information from a third party outside of the committee, took exception to the committee screening candidates, but not interviewing them.
But Corkins was one of the trustees who voted to approve that same ad hoc process when Rick Wright announced his departure from the board and his seat became available in August.
Corkins, who represented one of two dissenting votes along with Mark Storch, took a stance against Thomas because he said he wanted a trustee who would run for reelection.
Whether a candidate would run for reelection is the only question Corkins asked the three applicants Thursday during the board’s interview process.
Thomas said he would uphold a promise he made to his wife in 2006, after he ended his final term in congress, that his name would never appear on another ballot.
“I’m probably going to live up to the promise I made my wife,” Thomas said.
Agbalog defended the ad hoc committee process, describing it as fair and equitable.
“To impugn the integrity of the committee,” Agbalog said, sounding exasperated. “It’s comprised of three members. I wish I had the power some describe I have. The opinions were expressed in the committee and they have the ability to discuss the recommendations and that’s the point. The board has the option to either approve, deny or send the committee back to the drawing board.”
Rodgers, who described the process as “messy,” complained of miscommunications, unethical practices and the absence of an interview process on the part of the committee. Rodgers served on the KCCD board between 1994 and 2014.
“This was poorly done,” Rodgers said after the meeting. “There are ethical concerns.”
Rodgers said he received three letters. The first came from Agbalog inviting him to a special meeting of the board of trustees for an interview. The second letter, also from Agbalog, arrived a day before the first, rescinding his invitation to a special meeting. The third came Tuesday, this time addressed from Trustee Dennis Beebe, inviting him to an interview on Thursday during a regular board meeting.
Agbalog said those letters were an “event outside [his] control.” The committee at first determined it would interview all candidates, then determined that Thomas was the clear frontrunner, and rescinded invites to the other two applicants. Later, Beebe, who was also on the committee, sent out another letter inviting them to be interviewed.
Thomas told trustees during his public interview that he also had some concerns with the letters, but that he thought it was a clerical error.
Sometime during the course of the selection process, Agbalog sent an email to all trustees disclosing the applicant rankings the ad hoc committee – comprised of Agbalog, Kyle Carter and Beebe – had assigned to them.
That’s a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, the district’s general counsel, Christopher Hine, said.
“The communication did not happen during a properly noticed meeting,” Hine told the board, adding that it was “an unusual situation” that could be avoided in the future by implementing Brown Act training.
“This one was a tough one to spot at first, but we took steps to remediate it,” Hine said. That remediation includes disclosing the emails that were sent to all board members and making them publicly available.
Thomas, while more experienced in politics than any other board member, has been appointed as a provisional trustee for a 30-day period.
“So if we don’t like you, we can send you back,” Beebe joked.
“No,” Thomas said. “Only the voters can do that.”