Editorial: Avoiding appearance of wrongdoing | January 25, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Viewpoint - January 25, 2012

Editorial: Avoiding appearance of wrongdoing

The conduct of community college board members during the recent Nov. 8 election raises questions about how deeply involved elected representatives should be in passage of huge bond measures, in this case an issue of more than a half billion dollars.

In recent weeks, the Almanac has found that San Mateo Community College District board members, who are subject to the state's open meeting law, joined a nine-member committee in charge of getting the bond issue passed. While the law allows these board members to meet privately as part of such a committee, they are forbidden to discuss expenditure of bond issue funds.

It's a fine distinction but since the committee kept no minutes, there is no way to know if violations occurred. The committee, which also included presidents of two colleges, the district chancellor and the communications director, oversaw expenditure of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, including many from contractors likely to bid on the massive projects forthcoming if the bond issue passed. But Measure H did not pass, just missing the 55 percent voter approval necessary, which would have saddled district taxpayers with a $564 million debt in the midst of a serious economic downturn.

If the five board members "discussed, heard, debated or took action" on how to spend the bond money at the committee meetings, they would have violated the state's open meeting law, "by virtue of their participation as a (legislative) body," said Jim Ewert, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. But we can't know for sure what they said, a strong argument for keeping college district board members from working as a group to promote a measure that they themselves decided to put on the ballot.

Brad Senden, a campaign consultant who has worked for the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park City elementary school districts, and the Sequoia Union High School District, described such situations as problematic. "We go out of our way to make sure (board members) are never on an executive committee," he said.

"The temptation to talk about district stuff is too great. Don't do it," Mr. Senden said. "Perception problems are worse than legal problems because there's nowhere to go to adjudicate it and (have someone) say it's OK," Mr. Senden said.

We can understand the enthusiasm of well-meaning district board members who want to improve colleges whose campus buildings are in many cases 30 or more years old and need to be replaced. Local bond issues are the only way such districts can raise money for capital projects, unlike the UC and CSU systems, which can use state funds.

Good intentions do not justify questionable behavior. Technically, board members may not have violated the law when they served on this committee. But it was not the right thing to do and it opens the board to needless criticism. Elected college board members should stand clear of bond campaigns in the future to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. And voters should take notice.


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