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LBCC Trustee Board Bitterness Revealed In Superior Court Ruling In Favor Of Trustee Sunny Zia; LBCC Partially Dropped Its "Investigation" Suit Against Her But Still Sought Atty Fees Alleging She'd Failed To Recuse Herself From Certain Closed Sessions; Court Finds Zia Already Did So And LBCC's Action Against Her Was Legally Unnecessary

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(November 16, 2021, 2:30 p.m.) -- A Los Angeles Superior Court has ruled that the Long Beach Community College District (reflecting actions of its governing Board of Trustees majority) pursued a legal action seeking attorney fees from Trustee Sunny Zia alleging she failed to recuse herself from certain closed session items allegedly involving her...when in more than one instance she had already voluntarily agreed to do so.

In stinging verbiage at several points in a 19 page Nov. 15 minute order, Judge Mary Strobel said LBCC's pursuit of the writ seeking attorney fees from Ms. Zia was legally unnecessary.

The proceedings stemmed from an LBCC legal action seeking to require Trustee Zia to recuse herself from Board closed sessions regarding misconduct allegations against now former LBCC President/Superintendent Dr. Reagan Romali and Trustee Zia (that Zia contended from the outset were without merit.) In Sept. 2021, LBCC partially dismissed its action but still pursued the writ seeking attorney fees against Ms. Zia.

The court's opinion reveals a level of acrimony between some LBCC Trustees and Trustee Zia not widely visible until now.

At one point, LBCC argued in Court papers that "during Board meetings Respondent [Zia] has failed to comply with parliamentary procedure, interrupts other Board members, raises her voice when in disagreement, speaks out of turn, and engages in other disruptive conduct."...The Court dispensed that line of argument as follows: "Petitionerís contention that Respondent has been 'disruptive' at subsequent Board meetings is irrelevant and raises First Amendment questions that need not be adjudicated by this court. Petitioner does not seek a writ preventing Respondent from being disruptive at Board meetings or failing to follow parliamentary procedures..."

LBCC's legal proceedings are estimated to have cost taxpayers/students over half a million dollars...and Trustee Zia is now also left to pay her own attorney fees for having had to defend herself.

On taking office, Trustee Zia (first elected in 2014, re-elected in 2018 and up for re-election in 2022) initially irked some now former Board members by seeking greater transparency in spending practices but her support for Dr. Romali appears to have triggered more intense reactions from some of her Board colleagues.

From portions of the Court's minute order:

[Scroll down for further.]










Trustees Uduak-Joe Ntuk and Vivian Malauulu declare that ď[f]rom approximately July 2020 until December 2020, Trustee Sunny Zia has consistently refused to recuse herself from regular and special meetings in closed session that related to her and former Superintendent-President Reagan Romaliís conduct.Ē (Ntuk Decl. ∂ 3; Malauulu Decl. ∂ 3.) Given the conclusory nature of this evidence, it does not satisfy Petitionerís [LBCC's] burden of proof to show the necessity of writ relief...Petitioner has since dismissed that part of its writ claim which asserted that Respondent [Zia] had a duty to recuse herself from closed session discussions relating to Romali...In this context, Petitionerís conclusory evidence does not prove that Respondent refused to recuse herself from Board discussions pertaining specifically to her...

In [an Oct. 21, 2020 letter, Zia stated] "I am willing to recuse myself from Board discussions only to the extent the law requires it and where the same conflict of interest standards are applied to all members of the Board equally..." As noted, Petitioner [LBCC] has dismissed that part of its recusal claim. For all these reasons, Petitioner does not show that Respondentís statements and actions prior to the January 14, 2021, Ex Parte Hearing support a finding that Respondent has demonstrated an unwillingness to recuse herself from any present or future Board closed session meetings that discuss investigation findings or potential legal action against Respondent.

Petitioner contends that "[d]espite agreeing to recuse herself at the ex parte hearing, on January 14, 2021, Respondent [Zia] refused to recuse herself from the January 27, 2021 Zoom closed session meeting in which the Board intended to discuss matters involving Respondent...Petitioner raises a factual issue, which is disputed by Respondent.

Trustee Ntuk declares: "At the beginning of the January 27, 2021 regular meeting of the Board, Trustee Zia refused to recuse herself from the closed session meeting wherein she was advised the discussion would be about her conduct. Trustee Zia refused to logout of the Zoom closed session meeting. Because of Trustee Ziaís outright refusal to recuse herself, I directed our IT Administrator to cancel the Zoom closed session meeting and create a new Zoom closed session meeting without her being allowed to log on."..Trustee Malauulu makes a similar statement. (Malauulu Decl. ∂ 4.) While this declaration evidence is relevant, the court finds it conclusory and not particularly persuasive to prove either that Respondent refused to recuse herself as required by law, or that there is a present need for a writ...

At the ex parte hearing, Respondentís counsel represented on the record that Respondent agreed to recuse herself from any closed session meetings which discussed Respondentís alleged misconduct or potential Board legal action against Respondent...Absent evidence that Respondent did not honor this agreement at subsequent Board meetings, the representation by Respondentís counsel supports a finding that writ relief is not necessary.

...Petitioner nonetheless asserts that [s]ince the January 27, 2021 closed session meeting, during Board meetings Respondent has failed to comply with parliamentary procedure, interrupts other Board members, raises her voice when in disagreement, speaks out of turn, and engages in other disruptive conduct."..Petitionerís contention that Respondent has been "disruptive" at subsequent Board meetings is irrelevant and raises First Amendment questions that need not be adjudicated by this court. Petitioner does not seek a writ preventing Respondent from being disruptive at Board meetings or failing to follow parliamentary procedures...

...Weighing the evidence, the court finds that Respondentís [Zia's] opposition substantially undermines Petitionerís [LBCC's] position that Respondent refused to recuse herself from closed session discussions pertaining to her at the January 27, 2021, meeting or at subsequent meetings. This evidence also shows that a writ is not necessary at this time...

Given Ziaís public position she was not legally obligated to recuse herself but was doing so voluntarily, Petitionerís concern that Respondent would refuse to recuse herself in future closed sessions involving the investigation concerning her is not without some reasonable basis. Nonetheless, the court accepts Respondentís concession regarding her conflict of interest, and based on her previous recusals and intent to recuse herself on these items in the future, a writ is not necessary.

For the reasons discussed above, Petitioner does not satisfy its burden under section 1085 of showing the necessity of writ relief. The [LBCC] petition is DENIED.

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What's next? The LBCC Nov. 17 Board of Trustees agenda includes the following closed session item:

"Conference with Legal Counsel - Existing Litigation per Gov. Code Sec. 54956.9(a) LASC Case No. 20STCP03604: Long Beach Community College District v. Sunny Zia."

Developing.

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