By Miriam Raftery and Paul Kruze
May 15, 2019 (El Cajon) – The Cajon Valley Union School District stepped up its war on the media during its May 7th board workshop. A guard demanded that East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery and contributing editor Paul Kruze move from the front row to the back, in a clear effort to prevent the investigative journalists from recording an audible copy of the meeting. Both refused, citing First Amendment freedom of the press and the district’s continued non-compliance with California public records act requests to receive audios of past meetings.
At a subsequent meeting May 14, the guard repeated this demand for Kruze to move out of a front row seat, even threatening to the El Cajon Police for “disruption” if he would not comply. Kruze’s recording device is inobtrusive, about the size of a cell phone. There is nothing inherently disruptive about a journalist quietly recording a meeting, which is a right guaranteed to any citizen by the California Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s public records act.
These intimidation tactics come after the board admitted destroying recordings of public meetings despite our requests for the recordings. After receiving a cease and desist letter from an attorney at CalAware, the board on March 29 responded with a letter agreeing to comply with the law, as we reported, but has not done so. The board also voted to retain recordings for a year and make copies available on request. But the district’s lawyer claims our more records request, along with other emails sent to multiple people at the district, all went to a spam folder.
Hours before the May 7 meeting, CVUSD long-range planning employee Victoria Hayman at the district sent a “Call to Action!!” email out to Classified School Employees Association union members, on school time. “Cajon Valley needs your support to speak up and speak out against a local magazine that has been making negative and false allegations regarding Cajon Valley, it’s [sic] employees and governing board,” the e-mail said.
The email was sent following ECM’s latest article, which exposed that board president Tamara Otero failed to disclose that her son, Dryw Otero, owns Otero Construction, which was awarded a $665,000 bid that his company was awarded by the board. She also did not recuse herself and leave the room during the discussion, as board policy and FPPC rules mandate. She further failed to disclose that her son’s Linked In page lists him as a manager at her husband, Andrew Otero’s construction company. Andrew Otero was convicted of defrauding the federal government of $11 million by falsely claiming to be a veteran to get subsidies; he is awaiting sentencing. Tamara Otero did abstain from voting, without stating a reason. The FPPC conflicts of interest rules state "To avoid actual bias or the appearance of possible improprieties, the public official is prohibited from participating in the decision" If a decision will affect "The official's personal finances including his or her expenses, income, assets, or liabilities, as well as those of his or her immediate family." (emphasis added)
Superintendent Miyashiro earlier sent out an email blast copied to leaders in the district and media, slamming our well-documented reporting as “confused” and the allegations raised as “spurious” and “frivolous.” ECM editor Miriam Raftery responded, standing by the story, as we reported. He insisted at the May7 meeting that the district’s competitive bid selection process was “fair, impartial, transparent and legally compliant.”
At prior board meetings, board member Jim Miller has assailed ECM as “yellow journalism.” Miyashiro has refused to answer questions on eight district schools that the state Dashboard report finds are not meeting state standards, angrily lashing out at ECM’s editor and insisting the state measured the “wrong metrics.”
At last week’s meeting, Raftery addressed the board, stating that ECM stands by the story on Otero, and urged that they set an appropriate example for children by addressing problems to improve transparency and adopt a stronger conflict of interest policy instead of attacking the messenger.
Raftery said in part, “I am here to voice my concern about false, and frankly, and libelous statements that some in the district and classified union have put out in e-mails about our publication. E-mails claim without any substantiation that our articles have been false or negative. Our media outlet has won 112 journalism awards for truthful and accurate reporting are well documented.” She added, “I respect the hard-working teachers and employees in this district. I have a family member who is a teacher. I know that this district has had some great positive achievements like the national technology award we did report on. Instead of smearing the reputation of journalists, the board should look at itself in a mirror and adopt reforms such as a strong conflict-of-interest policy, full disclosure, providing all documents and recordings with full transparency in compliance of the law.”
Kruze also defended his reporting and faulted Otero for being deceptive when asked by fellow board member Jill Barto if Otero Construction was owned by her husband. (Kruze affirms that he heard Barto also ask about any other family relationship, when Otero spoke over Barto.) Barto has said she would not have voted for the contract had she known of the relationship.
Several district employees spoke during public comments to praise the district and/or slam our media outlet.
Mark Reagles, the CSEA union leader, complained that his email blast to members was posted by our media outlet on Facebook, after a copy was forwarded to us by a source within the district. He objected to our coverage and praised the board as one of the “finest,” then suggested that dissenting board member Jill Barto should be recalled. He accused of her “conspiring” with the media for providing ECM with information on board actions and policies.
Speaking with media is a First Amendment right that many elected officials regularly exercise when they have concerns about board actions or policies to help assure oversight and public awareness.
Sharon Clay, director of purchasing and logistics for the district, stated, “There is a strict legal process for competitive bids.” She objected to a statement made by a minority contractor passed over in the bidding process, who questioned whether Otero’s son may have had inside knowledge of bid amounts. She later told ECM such access could not have occurred. Clay said she had not been asked for comment, however e-mails sent by Kruze to Clay were among those that went to a spam folder, according to the district’s lawyer, Dan Shinoff.
Greg Calvert (photo, right), an Assistant Principal at Chase Elementary said of Otero and Miyashiro, “I know Superintendent David Miyashiro to be a man of integrity, to be a bold innovator, fearless leader, inspirational educator, and an honest human being. I know CVUSD Board President Tamara Otero, to be a woman of integrity, creative leader, a sincere community leader, and a selfless servant. She is an outstanding individual. Both Superintendent Miyashiro and President Otero have held high expectations for me and all of her student team mates.”
Stephanie Nelson, an office manager at Anza Elementary School criticized ECM. “As a member of this community and as an employee, I do not appreciate a publication misrepresenting our district and accusing our employees of basically criminal acts. They focus on inaccuracies and not reporting on a world recognized program that are being implemented by our district leaders and our teachers for our students.” She did not cite any example of specifically what she considered inaccurate.
Caitlyn Rodrigues, daughter of CVUSD Executive Assistant Naomi Rodrigues, also denounced ECM. “I have worked at a middle school for two years. I have worked at a middle school for two years and I can honestly say I know middle schoolers who write with more respect and more proof.” She, too, did not provide any evidence to back up her claims, which arguably are slanderous against ECM.
She further slammed board member Jill Barto for speaking with the media to share concerns about board policies and actions. “Conspiring with a sitting board member for misinformation is unethical and is the true story that is being missed. The fact that a sitting board member is giving interviews to a magazine that is wrongfully criticizing this district and the very policies is equally despicable as harmful.”
But other members of the public turned out to voice disappointment with the school board and superintendent for their actions.
Martin Eder, general manager of KNSJ Radio, is a former public school educator with 20 years of experience as an educator. He testified, “KNSJ radio airs a program from East County Magazine…which we stand by as an award-winning program that has a lot of integrity. I would ask the audience and board to consider the type of modeling we do for students, and that in particular means that when we attack the media we send a very wrong message about the way students should investigate the truth, be forthright and look at all of the facts involved as opposed to denigrate those who practice journalism if we don’t like their kind of message they are promoting.”
He continued, “The other way how we model transparency and defend freedom of the press. This goes to the heart of the issue of democracy and the ability of how the public to be informed. We have many opinions and it is fine that we have many opinions. We must celebrate instead of attack a journalist and I would challenge anybody to look at the facts provided by East County Magazine and defend those who have given their lives in defense of freedom of information and freedom of the press.”
East County activist James Elia presented scathing criticism of the board. “It seems every time I’m down here it isn’t for anything positive. It is always for some sort of, at best, negligence, or at worst, corruption.”
He continued, “The district gave Ms. Otero’s son a $665,000 building contract that wasn’t disclosed. That’s a problem. Did any members of the board realize it was her son? I would like to think that you would know a little bit about each other. The only person who seemed to question it was Ms. Barto and she was just dismissed. This is ridiculous.” He added that $665,000 “is a lot of money. You are supposed to disclosure things you are supposed to recuse yourself. I find that unacceptable. As a constituent and as a taxpayer that is completely unacceptable.”
Elia asked, “Where do we go from here? Do we talk to the District Attorney? I’m happy to call him. Do we talk to [California Attorney General] Xavier Becerra? I’m happy to call him. Do the citizens file their own lawsuits to try to correct this issue? And what is even more infuriating, after this was brought to light with the GOOD research of East County Magazine, who thank you so much for providing us with that. Instead of giving credence to what happened, you call it fake news. That’s fascism. This is not a fascist country. If you have a problem with the media, handle yourself as adults. Call them and say to give them your side of the story. Don’t attack them….you are all supposed to be adults.”
He called for the board to reverse its decision and then called for Otero to resign.
The board, however, took no action. Miyashiro stated that there was “no conflict of interest” since Otero’s son does not live with her. The board’s attorney, Dan Shinoff (photo, right), cited government code 1090 and said only actual financial gain is considered a conflict. The FPPC website however makes no such distinction, and board policy also requires recusal.
After public comment, during the ensuing board workshop on Brown Act compliance, the attorney noted that failing to comply with the law can have serious consequences.
Shinoff said he was not asked before the vote whether Otero should recuse herself for a potential conflict of interest, but did acknowledge that it is “best practice” to do so to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.
Superintendent David Miyashiro noted that “We can do better if that’s required,” adding that Barto, too, has abstained from some votes without recusing herself in the past. Miyashiro stated that he did speak with an attorney on the conflict of interest question prior to the vote, but did state the name.
At the end of the workshop, Barto was presented with a public records request from the district, which demands that she turn over all of her communications with our reporter.
The board’s attacks on the press and refusal to reverse the vote on the Otero conflict sparked heated discussions on social media.
Estela de los Rios has previously addressed the CVUSD board on bullying issues in schools, but says the board was not responsive. Upon hearing about the Otero controversy, she posted, “Conflict of interest! Big time. It’s wrong! I hope they reverse the decision. I’m not surprised, this district feels entitled to do what they want not what they were elected to do.”
Several community members have told ECM they are considering further actions against the district, ranging from litigation to community protests.
ECM is in process of securing legal counsel to protect our rights to record public meetings without further threats or harassment.
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View our recent coverage of the CVUSD, which has included positive stories on some district programs as well as other stories reporting on controversies:
Listen to our audio recordings of the May 7 board session: