Chaffey College student newspaper shut out of meeting where student body president was removed from office

CALIFORNIA — Associated Students of Chaffey College, the school’s student government board, closed its meeting to the public over the objections of student journalists, who say the closure was illegal.

The Breeze reporter Ryan Geluz said ASCC adviser John Machado instructed him to leave after the board voted to close Monday’s meeting to discuss a discipline matter. During the closed meeting, the board removed student body president Kevin Coduto from office.

“I protested because I thought that what they were doing was in violation of the Brown Act,” California’s open meetings law, Geluz said. The law allows public bodies to close meetings to discuss the discipline of an employee, but states that elected officials are not employees. Coduto said he was also told to leave when the meeting went into closed session.

According to Geluz’s recording of the meeting while it was in open session, Machado said “anything under discipline” allowed for a closed meeting under the Brown Act.

“We don’t have to list who we’re doing for that, but the results of it will be announced when we come back into open session,” Machado said.

When reporters continued questioning the meeting’s closure afterward, Machado cited a personnel exception to the Brown Act, The Breeze Editor-in-Chief Valeen Gonzales said. She and other staffers believe that exception does not apply to Coduto.

“The Act defines the term ‘employee’ to include an officer or an independent contractor who functions as an officer or an employee, but shall not include any elected official, member of a legislative body or other independent contractors,” the law reads.

Despite multiple attempts, neither student government members nor college staff have answered questions from the paper, Gonzales said. Machado declined to comment for this article, and three other officials did not return calls for comment.

Coduto, who believes he was wrongly fired, thinks it came about because he endorsed a candidate for the school’s board of governors. At a student government meeting held earlier this month, Henry Shannon, the college’s president, came and criticized Coduto’s role in the campaign, saying it would appear that Coduto was representing all of student government.

“Because Kevin cannot just be Kevin if he’s elected by the student government society here at Chaffey College, so Kevin I’m saying that to you, I’m saying that to your colleagues,” Shannon said, according to The Breeze.

In an email sent the day after the meeting with Shannon, Machado told Coduto he had violated ASCC’s bylaws by failing to “conduct himself with the utmost integrity” and “confusing his personal views with that of ASCC,” among other charges.

In Machado’s email, he wrote that ASCC was offering him a chance to stay on the board if he published a public apology. Some of the actions he was asked to apologize for were “placing his personal political agenda ahead of the wellbeing (sic) and success of ASCC,” as well as a statement Coduto gave that was printed in The Breeze “calling the actions of Dr. Shannon ‘highly unprofessional and disrespectful.’”

“If (Coduto) refuses or does not complete the request, the Campus Council will vote on his removal from office,” the email stated.

Gonzales said that student government members’ silence has added to their suspicions that the public had been illegally shut out.

“Everybody’s afraid to talk,” she said.

In an email to campus officials Tuesday, Machado alleged The Breeze’s coverage was inaccurate. Still, Gonzales said, he has not confronted the newspaper staffers themselves with his claims.

“He said that to everyone but us,” Gonzales said. “He should at least talk to the newspaper.”

Coduto’s ouster, and the secrecy surrounding it, has led to “pretty universal outrage” on campus, Geluz said. He said passersby on campus have been asking him how such a sudden firing could happen.

Students organized a discussion Wednesday night and invited Coduto to present his side of the story. Coduto said he’s heard support from dozens of students and faculty members and sees his firing as more of a students’ rights issue.

“It’s not necessarily about me anymore,” Coduto said.

Coduto said he is exploring multiple avenues for his reinstatement, including filing a grievance with the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, which would investigate the college.

“Hopefully this will be resolved before then,” he said.

He also wrote a letter to governing board president Kathleen Brugger, asking to speak at their next meeting on Thursday. His position as student body president made him simultaneously a student trustee, and Chaffey administrative rules state that student trustees can only be removed through a recall election.

The Breeze plans to keep writing about the alleged misuse of the Brown Act because otherwise “they’ll continue to do it,” Gonzales said.

“They shouldn’t be keeping the public and the press out,” she said. “We want transparency.”

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.