Supporters of Fresno High School’s traditional mascot, a Native American warrior image, are now 0 for 3 after a Fresno County Superior Court judge on Wednesday dismissed their civil lawsuit claiming the School Board violated the Brown Act in its vote to change the mascot.
Judge Gabriel Brickey found that supporters failed to meet state-mandated deadlines for filing a suit over open meeting law violations.
Mascot supporter Jim Tuck told GV Wire that supporters plan to turn from judicial courts to the court of public opinion by seeking recalls of School Board members who voted in December to change the mascot.
The vote was 6-1, with Bullard area Trustee Terry Slatic casting the lone no vote.
Alleged Open Meeting Law Violations
Tuck said mascot supporters were heartened by Brickey’s comments during the hearing on the allegations, which he said acknowledged the Brown Act violation and which his lawyer, Ryan Griffith, said was an observation that the supporters had been “misled” by the district.
“The judge said, ‘No doubt they violated your rights,’ ” Tuck said.
The lawsuit alleged the board violated the Brown Act on several counts, including: The Dec. 9 agenda item to change the mascot reported there would be no fiscal impact — even though the board later passed a $456,000 budget revision to pay for mascot changes — and the district previously had said no decision on the mascot would be made until after school reopened.
Although schools were still closed due to the pandemic on Dec. 9, students were in online classes.
District spokeswoman Vanessa Ramirez said that Brickey did not weigh in on the Brown Act allegations, however.
“The judge did recite the complainants’ allegations but only to provide context to his decision ruling in favor of Fresno Unified,” she said Thursday in an email to GV Wire. “The judge had no jurisdiction to decide the Brown Act claim because the complainants failed to meet the statute of limitations.”
The proposal to change the mascot came in an online petition by Jamie Nelson, who identifies as a Yokut person. It sparked a heated community debate among those who wanted to change the mascot because they consider it racist and disrespectful of Native Americans, and those who wanted to keep it to maintain the longstanding mascot tradition at the city’s oldest high school.
After listening sessions with students, staff, community members, and alumni and a community town hall meeting, all held virtually because of the pandemic, the board voted on Dec. 9 to keep the Warriors name but change the image.
But supporters of the traditional mascot did not give up and continued to submit public comments at the board’s virtual meetings. When the School Board resumed in-person meetings this spring, dozens of supporters showed up at each meeting to express their opposition to the change and to the proposed $456,000 expenditure.
The new mascot image, selected through a student poll, is a line drawing of Fresno High’s historic Royce Hall. The board also selected a secondary image for team uniforms, the letter F.
After more weeks of pleas by the mascot supporters to the trustees to revisit their December vote, the board voted 5-1-1 in June to approve the budget revision. Slatic cast the lone no vote and Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas abstained.
But supporters already had filed the lawsuit asking the judge to set aside the Dec. 9 vote.
Controlled Access at Courthouse
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, mascot supporters who tried to enter the courthouse for Wednesday’s hearing were denied entry by Nelson, who is employed by the courts and was working at the front desk of the entrance of the B.F. Sisk Courthouse on O Street, Tuck said.
Griffith said Nelson’s ability to bar mascot supporters from the courthouse was outrageous given his connection to the issue.
“For him to lock people out of the courtroom that do not support his viewpoint is unacceptable,” Griffith said. “I do not care what side of the political aisle you are on, the courtroom must be accessible to everyone regardless of political beliefs. The courtroom is the foundation of our democracy and for a court employee to deny access to a public hearing based on a personal agenda is something that cannot be tolerated.”
Courts spokeswoman Suzanne Abi-Rached did not confirm that Nelson was at the entrance Wednesday afternoon, but she said the court is continuing to restrict access due to pandemic-required limitations.
“The court is not fully open at this point and is only admitting those who are a party to the matter being heard and members of the media. This has been the practice for some time,” she said Thursday.
Nelson provided details about the encounters in a Facebook post Wednesday.
He said this in a Facebook post earlier Wednesday:
Recall Campaigns Starting Soon
Tuck, who previously was the named plaintiff on the suit, said supporters are fired up about seeking the recall of trustees. They plan to kick it off by filing recall notices against Trustee Claudia Cazares and another unnamed trustee.
It’s being dubbed the “Move On” recall campaign, highlighting board chairwoman Valerie Davis’ comments after the budget revision vote in June for the supporters to drop their opposition and move on, he said.
They’ve started a Facebook page named Recall Fresno Unified Board Trustees.
Tuck said the Fresno County Elections Office has verified signatures and addresses for the first 20 people signing the two petitions.
But James Kus, County Clerk/Registrar of Voters, said the signature verification was halted when the recall supporters said they weren’t initiating the recall yet.
“The group brought two Notices of Intent to our office,” he said in an email to GV Wire. “After my staff spent time looking up the signatures on the Notices, the group announced that they were not filing the Notices at this time. Since no Notice of Intent has been filed, my office has not verified any signatures.”
Tuck said the recall election supporters are planning to wait until after school starts to notify the trustees that they are the target of a recall and begin collecting signatures on the recall petitions.
The rules of recall elections are quite specific and must be followed precisely, or else recall supporters will have to begin the process from the start and pay filing fees a second time, Tuck said.