At last Tuesday’s Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) School Board meeting, the board revisited AB361, a California law passed in 2021 that governs how local public agencies use teleconferencing.
Passed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the law allows public officials to attend meetings remotely during a proclaimed “state of emergency,” so long as they state where they’re broadcasting from and keep their cameras on throughout the meeting.
AB361 had last come up at August 1’s Special School Board Meeting, where the board voted 5-0 to continue implementing the law for 30 more days. Last Tuesday, the board yet again addressed the matter of continuing to abide by AB361 for another 30 days.
But when the rules of stating one’s location and keeping one’s camera on came up, MUSD Board President Kelly Yip-Chuan said, “We have a board member that has not been complying with that…”
She was referring to Trustee Michael Tsai, who favors attending board meetings remotely due to COVID-19 concerns. At last week’s meeting, Tsai was the only board member attending virtually; the other four members were there in-person. Upon hearing Yip-Chuan’s remark, Tsai snapped that she was engaging in “a dirty election season trick.”
Tsai is currently running for Milpitas City Council, as is Trustee Hon Lien. Both Yip-Chuan and Board Vice President Chris Norwood are running for School Board re-election.
“I would appreciate it,” Tsai said to Yip-Chuan, “if you would just stop.”
After much discussion, complete with mention of the CDC’s recent retraction of social distancing guidelines and exploration of censuring remote meeting attendees who don’t keep their cameras on or state their locations, the item went to a roll call vote, with Hon Lien, Kelly Yip-Chuan, and Christopher Norwood voting against the board’s continued application of AB361. Michael Tsai and Ming Ngo voted for it.
Tsai requested that AB361 be brought back for discussion at the next meeting, citing newer COVID variants as well as the recent spread of monkeypox.
“We’re no longer in a state of emergency,” Yip-Chuan said, explaining the reason for her vote in an interview with The Beat. “We’re all back in person.”
Following the meeting, Trustee Tsai texted the three board members who didn’t vote with him this message:
“Think very carefully about what you are doing. Trust me, you should hope that nothing you do causes me to lose my race.”
Tsai’s text to Lien:
Tsai’s text exchange with Yip-Chuan:
Tsai was referring to his candidacy for City Council. Feeling threatened, Trustees Lien and Yip-Chuan went to the Milpitas Police Department (MPD) the next day and filed police reports against him.
Different legal interpretations can be brought to Tsai’s text, although he hasn’t been charged with a crime. According to the California penal code, “‘Harassment’ means a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, seriously annoying, seriously tormenting, or seriously terrorizing the person and that serves no legitimate purpose.” The crime is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of no more than $1,000, or by both jail time and the fine.
The penal code also cites penalties for criminal threats, stating, “Any person who willfully threatens to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the statement, made verbally, in writing, or by means of an electronic communication device, is to be taken as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out…shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison.”
Making criminal threats is a “wobbler” under California state law, meaning the crime can be charged as either a misdemeanor (possibly resulting in up to a year of jail) or a felony (possibly resulting in up to three years in state prison), depending on the defendant’s history and the facts of the case.
The AB361 issue has long been a sticking point between Tsai and his fellow trustees. MPD officers were in attendance at the board’s meeting site last year, prior to the board originally implementing AB361. In a text exchange between The Beat and Superintendent Cheryl Jordan, Jordan stated, “We requested police presence in the fall of 2021.”
She elaborated, “We requested police presence due to safety concerns.”
“I feel unsafe,” said Lien in an interview with The Beat, “because all cases start with these kinds of cold threats, and it escalates.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “a workplace violence incident is a verbal, written, or physically aggressive threat or attack intended to intimidate, cause injury or death to others in a place of employment.”
Lien went on to add, “Threat to public office candidates is a threat to our democracy. It’s happening and is becoming an egregious norm. It is unacceptable.”
In March of 2021, the School Board voted to censure Michael Tsai for “continuous inappropriate behavior and misconduct.” Come December, they extended the censure. Last February, Tsai clashed publicly with Yip-Chuan, accusing her of misusing the services of student volunteers.
The Beat’s interview with Yip-Chuan followed her filing the police report. She said, “Harassment and workplace hostility is never acceptable, especially when it’s coming from an elected official who is supposed to have higher standards. This individual has a history of unacceptable and abusive behaviors that needs to cease and desist immediately.”
Although the Board did not vote to continue enacting AB361, any board member is still free to attend meetings virtually, so long as they are in compliance with Brown Act requirements.
Michael Tsai did not respond to a request for comment.