The chair that SBCC President Andreea Serban has occupied during the college’s board meetings for the past three years was filled by a new speaker Monday night, signaling that a transition from her leadership is under way.
Dr. Jack Friedlander, formerly the school’s executive vice president, is now acting president of the school and made an appearance Monday at the first meeting the SBCC Board of Trustees has held since Friday — when Serban was placed on paid leave at the end of a marathon closed session, and news spread rapidly.
Serban’s employee evaluation was put on the board’s closed agenda item just weeks after the new board was elected last year, which put her supporters on alert and drew many of them out to speak during public comment at the board’s meetings. The outcry reached a fever pitch this summer, with one group even calling for a recall election for the four new trustees, alleging that the board had violated the Brown Act by not properly disclosing the events surrounding Serban’s evaluation.
But after months of tension and packed board rooms, Monday’s meeting found only about 30 people sitting in the audience, a sparse turnout compared with previous events.
Only three public speakers addressed the board, one of whom read a letter from Dr. Serban to Friedlander in which she congratulated him on his 25 years of service — a milestone he celebrated Monday.
Friedlander said he and Serban have had a good working relationship, and that he’ll continue to consult with her to make “the transition as orderly as possible.”
“She worked tirelessly, and the college was her life,” he said.
Serban will continue to hold the title of president for the college until a new hire is made and will receive her $215,000 annually until June 30, 2012. After that, she will be given a payment for 18 months in a lump sum. If Serban accepts a job elsewhere before that, her contract with the school will end.
Exactly why the board has put the president on paid leave is unclear. Though the board is required to report any decisions it makes in closed session, personnel discussions are confidential, so almost all of what transpired in closed session Friday night has been kept mum by trustees, leaving the community with more questions than answers.
However, some revealing comments were introduced by Trustee Joan Livingston on Monday. She expressed concern that the role of the board’s president was too loosely defined in policy, “yet we watch the board president take on roles that left other board members out of the governance process.”
Livingston said she would like to have a discussion about board President Peter Haslund’s role and said she was particularly concerned about the president’s power to commit public funds, and requested what expenses they’ve run up as a board. She also called for “some sort of checks and balances” if the board president’s decisions exceed the comfort level of trustees.
Haslund did not address Livingston’s observations or Serban’s paid leave, other than to say he wanted to start thinking about the search process to fill her position.
A hearty discussion about the Brown Act also took place later in Monday’s meeting at Livingston’s prompting. If one feels something happened in closed session that was improper, she asked, “where does one go with that?”
“I think it’s a worthy discussion,” she said. “The Brown Act is very important, but is it a total gag on talking about (closed session items)?”
Attorney Craig Price said there are no appellate decisions or decisions from the attorney general on this specific topic.
“What you get down to is individual situations that board members have to decide on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “It’s walking a fine line between not disclosing information that was arrived at by virtue of being in the closed session, and maintaining your right to publicly express your opinion that what was done ... was either improper or illegal.”
“I would say it was a feeling of improper process that was indulged in,” Livingston said. At that, Price reminded the board that the penalties that elected officials face for releasing confidential information could lead them to being reported to a grand jury.
“The penalties are chilling,” Livingston said. “I wanted to at least have a discussion about this in the public record.”
The next step the board faces in finding a replacement for Serban is to name an interim president by the time Friedlander’s 30-day term ends. After that, it must find a permanent president for the college.