After more than an hour of public comments and six-plus hours of private deliberations, the Contra Costa Community College District Governing Board emerged from closed session just after midnight Friday to report they voted to reinstate Chancellor Bryan Reece from administrative leave.
Reece, who is in his second academic year leading the district, was placed on paid leave Sept. 14 amid an internal investigation into undisclosed "personnel matters." The underlying investigation remains ongoing, but Reece was allowed to return to work effective Friday while the district's probe is still pending.
In a special meeting that began just after 5 p.m. Thursday, the board heard from several dozen public speakers, including some district faculty and staff, largely opposed to Reece's administrative leave before the trustees adjourned into closed-session deliberations.
The board voted 3-2 to return Reece to his position, with John Márquez, Fernando Sandoval and Rebecca Barrett voting in favor, while President Andy Li and Vice President Judy Walters (whose respective districts include the San Ramon Valley) voted against the motion.
More than 40 Zoom attendees, including Reece himself, waited until after midnight Friday to hear the outcome of the closed portion of the meeting.
Many in the public comment portion suggested that whatever the grounds for Reece being put on leave were, they weren't sufficient enough for permanent dismissal. Others expressed dismay over high rates of personnel turnover in the district, and frustration with lack of transparency in the governing board's investigation practices.
"Every single conversation has ended with 'what the hell is going on with the district, and why is the chancellor on leave,'" Diablo Valley College faculty member Donna Wapner said in a public comment.
District officials have declined to comment on the specific allegations in the underlying investigation involving Reece, citing personnel confidentiality.
Reece has worked as Contra Costa chancellor for 11 months, having been hired early in the 2020-21 academic year to start on Nov. 1. He was formerly president of Norco College in Riverside County before that board terminated his contract in June 2019, with no official reason ever given.
Reece himself, in a public comment just before the board went to closed session on Thursday evening, urged board members to vote with messages of support for him -- and of dismay about his leave -- in mind.
"Don't forget your constituents put you in charge," Reece said.
Reece argued that addressing problems with the district's personnel investigation processes and policies was among the 45 objectives he'd been tasked with as chancellor, and one measure intended to bring stability to the district. In the meantime, he suggested taking current investigations, including the one that had begun prior to his administrative leave, with a grain of salt.
"These practices have been widely acknowledged as flawed, and they lack clear policies to guide us," Reece said. "Dr. Walters and Mr. Marquez have been working hard on proposed policies for an ad hoc committee. But until this work is completed, our old structures remain for investigations. So without clear policies, our investigations have historically been very litigious and very political. This normally happens when you don't have clear policies."
Reece said the current investigation process puts pressure on board members to make decisions without clear policies, and suggested that this in turn might make board members overly dependent on legal opinions, absent sufficient internal policies.
"Now tonight, I presume that you're probably going to spend a lot of time with Mr. Sloane," Reece said, referring to the governing board's legal counsel for the case. "I don't know him, but he seems like a very nice man to me. I do know the kind of situation he's in, and I suspect he's going to double down on his argument. He may try to put you in a corner where you feel trapped, legally. He may say the law requires you to keep me on administrative leave."
Reece claimed that a U.S. attorney had looked at his case and came to a different conclusion, as had his own attorney -- seeming to suggest that they thought he could be reinstated during the investigation.
The chancellor did not elaborate on the nature of the personnel matters for which he is under investigation during his public statement Thursday, and he has not responded to requests for comment from DanvilleSanRamon.com.
In addition to frustration over the district's investigation processes, some commenters suggested the Sept. 14 meeting at which Reece was placed on leave in particular was flawed, in that it was an entirely closed session, and that members of the public had no way of knowing Reece would be potentially put on leave following the meeting based on the agenda verbiage.
"The action by President Andy Li, Vice President Judy Walters and Trustee Rebecca Barrett to place Chancellor Reece on administrative leave for 'personnel matters' was illegal," Maria Alegria argued during public comment, speaking on behalf of Contra Costa County LatinX for Inclusion.
In addition to vocalizing support for Reece on behalf of Contra Costa County LatinX for Inclusion, Alegria suggested Li had violated the Brown Act and called for him to step down in the statement. Alegria served as chair for the Democratic Party of Contra Costa County for the 2016-2021 term, and previously as mayor of Pinole and as a councilmember, before being recalled in 2008.
Alegria said that the lack of input from the board's Hispanic members, Márquez and Sandoval in the Sept 14 vote, "on the eve of National Hispanic Heritage Month smacks of veiled racism."
Li pointed out that Márquez attended the entire Sept. 14 meeting but abstained from the vote while Sandoval had been in attendance earlier via Zoom but left before voting that night.
In addition to Alegria, who had been among those at LatinX for Inclusion to initially endorse Reece, other commenters applauded Reece's commitment to diversity equity and inclusion and social justice, suggesting that his removal would pose a threat to efforts towards these ends in the district. This included public comments from various members of countywide NAACP branches, as well as Jeffrey Michels, executive director of United Faculty.
Victoria Adams, president of the East County branch of the NAACP, issued a statement of support for Reece on the branch's behalf, additionally raising concerns about lack of transparency behind the decision to put him on leave.
"You have not shared with anybody the reasons for these actions," Adams said. "Dr. Reece has been accused of what? We're not sure. We don't know. We're confused."
While some commenters sought to address what they thought could have been the reasons for Reece's previous administrative leave, a large portion of comments focused on what cost would come with losing a recently hired chancellor so early into his term.
Explicit support for Reece was plentiful, but commenters also raised a number of general concerns about what they saw as a lack of due process in the district’s personnel policies, calling instead for more reliance on regular performance evaluations and a more transparent investigation process to address any alleged wrongdoing.
"Katrina VanderWoude, Susan Kincade, Carsbia Anderson, Dio Shipp, Gene Huff, and now Bryan Reece," Michels said. "That's six senior administrators in our district -- all of whom faculty were working well with, all of whom faculty leadership came to this board to support, all of whom disappeared one day -- placed on paid administrative leave with no explanation."
The investigation into the personnel matter involving Reece is ongoing, and the board will follow the formal employee evaluation procedures outlined in the chancellor’s contract, according to a statement from Li after the vote early Friday morning.
Full video of the meeting is available here.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct details about the board's Sept. 14 meeting and vote to place Reece on administrative leave, as well as to clarify that Maria Alegria's term as Contra Costa County Democratic Party chair expired earlier this year. DanvilleSanRamon.com regrets the errors.