Questions about Brown Act Violations, potentially illegal contract negotiations and more surface with Martha Garcia gone

With Martha Garcia Gone, Ethical Questions Surface

Martha Garcia

PALM DESERT — College of the Desert President/Superintendent Martha Garcia is officially gone, but she has left in her wake a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to possible Brown Act violations that involve both current and former trustees, questions about her contract negotiations and more.

The email trail demonstrates an alarming level of hubris among some trustees as they negotiate and communicate via email outside of the public’s view.

Former Chair Rubén Pérez created a serial meeting via email about Garcia’s evaluation process, which needed to be done prior to her receiving a contract extension.  As evidenced by the email, he emailed Trustee Bea Gonzalez, and former Trustee Aurora Wilson about how former Trustee Fred Jandt didn’t agree with the method of using an evaluation that didn’t allow for a score of one, it only allowed rankings two through five instead of one through five.  The subcommittee for the evaluation process was Trustees Steffan and Gonzalez. Pérez also copied Garcia, the subject of the evaluation.


Rubén Pérez

He was communicating with a quorum of the board outside a publicly noticed meeting, a violation of the Brown Act. The Brown Act is a California law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

As background, On March 19, 2021, the Board of Trustees approved the Management Professional Development / Evaluation Personnel Plan.  This plan was to be used to evaluate all managers so that each evaluation was comprehensive.  This plan was not used for Garcia’s contract extension in November 2022.  In fact, Garcia proposed an evaluation process that was used at Imperial Valley College.  However, it is reported that she did not complete a self-evaluation and the evaluation did not include behavioral ratings in accordance with that plan. Why was she allowed to propose her own evaluation tool? A case of the tail wagging the dog?

Prior to a board meeting, it is typical for the president to meet with the Board Chair and Vice Chair to set the agenda and review items on the agenda.  After her board review with Trustees Pérez and Stefan, Garcia emailed Trustee Stefan informing her of a one-year contract extension and a buy-out clause that extended a termination payment from 12 months to 18 months in collaboration with Trustee Perez.  The contract provided a 12% raise.  The extension of a buy-out clause to 18 months is illegal according to Government Code Section 53260, Section a (2).

All contracts of employment between an employee and a local agency employer shall include a provision that provides that regardless of the term of the contract, if the contract is terminated, the maximum cash settlement that an employee may receive shall be an amount equal to the monthly salary of the employee multiplied by the number of months left on the unexpired term of the contract, with the following exceptions:

  • If the unexpired term of the contract is greater than 18 months, the maximum cash settlement shall be an amount equal to the monthly salary of the employee multiplied by 18.
  • In the case of a district superintendent of schools, for contracts of employment executed on or after January 1, 2016, the maximum cash settlement shall be an amount equal to the monthly salary of the employee multiplied by 12.

A day prior to the Nov. 8, 2022 election, Trustee Wilson and Area 4 candidate, sent an email to Trustee Pérez requesting that he speak to the reason for Garcia’s raise and contract extension for the Nov. 10, 2022, meeting as she was getting numerous emails from staff and public about this issue.  She suggests some possible talking points for him. She states, “And I would bet The Desert Sun will jump on it.”

Garcia’s contract extension with the alleged illegal terms was terms was approved 3-2. Trustees Fred Jandt and Bonnie Stefan voted no.

In emails Uken Report has obtained, there seem to be more questions than answers, For instance:

  • Why didn’t then-Chair Pérez follow Board policy for evaluating Garcia in a comprehensive manner that he voted for in March 2021?
  • Why did he unilaterally suggest a one-year contract extension for Garcia that also included an alleged illegal buyout clause after Board Review?
  • Why did Trustee Pérez and Garcia have a subsequent meeting about these changes without Vice Chair Steffan being involved?
  • If Trustees Stefan and Gonzalez were in charge of the evaluation process for Garcia as a subcommittee, then why did Trustee Pérez reach out via email to Trustees Gonzalez and Wilson about Trustee Jandt’s concerns about the evaluation process, thereby creating a serial meeting?

The overarching question is, what made any of those involved think they could get away with this type of “governing?”

Sheer arrogance or incompetence?

Will any of it make a difference now? Time will tell.


Image Sources

  • College of the Desert: COD