The Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) board of directors had anticipated catching some flack for its decision to bar one board member from serving on committees in 2020, and just a few minutes into the board's first meeting since that controversial vote, things were already off to a rocky start.
- Screenshot From SLO-Span
- A WIN FOR REPLOGLE At an OCSD meeting on Jan. 22, the board of directors voted unanimously to reconsider its bar on board member Cynthia Replogle's participation in committee assignments.
The board had only made it past roll call and the Pledge of Allegiance when its Jan. 22 meeting started to go awry. Audience members immediately took issue with the board's decision to go into closed session before allowing the public to comment, and when board members struggled to agree on a meeting format, attendees hijacked the meeting, giving impassioned comments about the right to free speech, transparency, and the importance of open and honest discussion.
One such comment came from Oceano resident and attorney Katherine Schwinghammer, who said at the meeting that she's a U.S. citizen by choice.
"I point that out because when I became a U.S. citizen, I took an oath to honor and uphold the Constitution," Schwinghammer said. "When I became a lawyer here in the state of California, I took the same oath: honor and uphold the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights, which should be extremely important to all of us, is freedom of speech."
Some Five Cities community members have been fired up about this issue since Dec. 11, 2019, when the OCSD board voted to prohibit board member Cynthia Replogle from serving on any committees and from obtaining community liaison or subject matter assignments for the duration of 2020.
The motion was introduced by Vice President Karen White, who said Replogle's "continued protests and opposition to the actions that have already been taken by the majority of this board" are destructive to the OCSD and its goals.
Although the OCSD board voted unanimously in closed session on Jan. 22 to reconsider committee assignments at its Feb. 26 meeting, the initial decision to bar Replogle and the way it was handled led to concerns over free speech rights and the Brown Act.
Los Osos resident Julie Tacker submitted a "cure and correct" letter to board members threatening to sue if they refused to reconsider committee assignments. At the Jan. 22 meeting, Tacker said that the possibility of such action being taken against Replogle wasn't included anywhere on the Dec. 11, 2019, meeting agenda and argued it was instead carried out under the guise of annual, standard committee assignments.
"The agenda was to set committee assignments only," Tacker said at the meeting. "Your board decided to take that opportunity to make a motion, a second, and a vote, to ban Ms. Replogle from any committees for the next year. At the same time they defamed her and took away her freedom of speech, her right to free speech."
The OCSD board rejected the cure and correct letter, but Tacker told New Times she was pleased with the decision to reconsider committee assignments.
Replogle agreed and thanked community members for speaking out at the Jan. 22 meeting while wearing a shirt that read, "Free speech is for everyone, even people you don't agree with."
"I do believe there was a Brown Act violation as alleged by Ms. Tacker," Replogle said at the meeting. "Nethertheless, the board has agreed to revisit the committee assignments. So that's the desired outcome, and I'm glad we were able to agree on that."
But not everyone was opposed to the ban on Replogle.
One community member said on Jan. 22 that Replogle and her supporters are "toxic," and another said that barring a board member from all committees falls under "committee assignments," as included on the Dec. 11, 2019 agenda.
"I think the board has the absolute right and responsibility to appoint the best people to represent Oceano on the various committees throughout the county," he said, a statement that was followed by applause.
Although both OCSD legal counsel and Vice President White declined to comment on the issue, OCSD General Manager Will Clemens said it's not totally unusual for a governing body to take this kind of action against one member, and it's something the OCSD board has the power to do.
The OCSD's bylaws—which the board plans to revise at its first meeting in February—say that once the board takes action, members should commit to supporting the decision and should not obstruct its implementation.
"So this is not a unique bylaw," Clemens said. "Most governments have this bylaw because they need their governing body to be effective. And if one member is subverting the will of the majority, that's not effective."
The bylaws acknowledge that differing viewpoints are beneficial to the board, but Clemens said majority opinion rules in this country, and debates over an issue should be carried out before the ultimate decision is made. If members want to represent the board on committees, the bylaws say they should be supportive of the board's already finalized decisions.
"Membership on committees is not a right," Clemens said. "It's a privilege." Δ
Editor's note: This article was modified to correct Katherine Schwinghammer's place of residence.
Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.