In the more than seven decades that she lived in Santa Clara, there were few public questions that Santa Clara community leader Josephine Rowen didn’t make her voice heard on.
But one thing she’ll always be remembered for is the landmark court case that set precedent for interpreting California’s Brown Act – the law governing how public agencies conduct business. She was so fierce an advocate for government openness that her son James Rowen closed his eulogy last week by saying, “The first thing she’s going to do when she gets to heaven is make sure that everything is on the agenda.”
Attesting to Josephine’s enduring influence in the Mission City, past, present and hopeful Santa Clara mayors and City Council members paid their respects at her funeral Feb. 25 at St. Clare’s Church, accompanying her to her final resting place in the city’s historic Mission City Memorial Park – also the gravesite of Progressive-Era legislative journalist, Franklin Hichborn, known for publishing the voting records of California state legislators.
A lifelong resident of the Santa Clara Valley, Josephine died in her sleep at home on February 5, 2011 following a long illness.
She was born Feb. 28, 1926 to Ciro and Sarah Barbaccia in San Jose. Her father came to the U.S. from Palermo, Sicily in 1916 to join his family in San Francisco, and served in WWI. After the war, Ciro came to San Jose where he worked on the railroad, and on weekends raised fruit and nut trees on the family ranch that became part of western Santa Clara.
In 1951 she married Thomas Rowen, with whom she spent 46 happy years until his death in 1997. The couple had four sons – Thomas R. Rowen (deceased), Timothy W. Rowen, James C. Rowen, and Edward J. Rowen – and two grandchildren – Theri and Dennis Rowen – all of whom continue to live in the area.
Josephine believed that children were never too young to learn about politics. “She took me to my first CAC meeting when I was eight or nine,” recalls granddaughter Theri Rowen. “I would bring my Barbie dolls to the meetings.”
The case that earned Josephine a place in California history, Rowen v. Santa Clara Unified School District (1981), was precipitated by a closed school board meeting about hiring contractors to help the district sell surplus property – services that are grouped under the title “special services” and not subject to competitive bidding.
The board secretary kept informal notes of the closed session discussion, but no formal minutes. A proposed contract was discussed at two regular board meetings, and subsequently approved by the board in open session.
In deciding against SCUSD, the court ruled that public agencies could hold closed sessions only for purposes specifically authorized by law – for example, reviewing complaints against employees. Otherwise, business must be conducted in public, and contractors selected, in open session.
The court was pointed in its findings. “Respondents [SCUSD] have not suggested…why the ‘qualifications’ of real estate specialists to assist a school board in disposing of surplus real estate… involve such sensitive matters as to require concealment from an interested public.”
“We confront what is,” the judges continued, “in effect, a plea by respondents [SCUSD] that we amend the Brown Act by judicial fiat… to effectuate our own judgment as to what we consider would be ‘good’ policy for this state’s agencies.”
This focus on process – instead of personalities – was a reason for the high regard in which she was held not only by those who agreed with her, but by those who disagreed as well.
“When I was chairman of the CAC, she may have disagreed with me,” said former Santa Clara mayor Eddie Souza, “but she always supported the CAC’s [final] decision. She was even-handed, she didn’t have an agenda.”
While she never held elected office, Josephine was deeply involved in the local political process both by regularly attending City Council meetings and as an active member and officer of the Santa Clara Citizens Advisory Committee.
Josephine’s ability to stay focused on the issue at hand helped ensure that all aspects of civic concerns were discussed freely at the CAC, without personal attacks or interruptions; and she was known for her ability to quiet even the most disruptive and unruly meeting participants.
Josephine was also known for her dedication to her large extended family and her generosity to friends – a group that included just about everyone she knew. “I will always keep a lasting image of my sister’s commitment to family life,” said her brother Dr. Joseph Barbaccia.
“I’ll never forget her,” said Margarita Rodriguez, whose live-in care allowed Josephine to remain at home during her final months. “She gave me a chance to get out of a difficult time. She came like an angel when I needed it.”