Counsel says no conflict of interest with candidates

 

Last updated 10/6/2006 at Noon



In a Special Meeting of the Fallbrook Union High School District Board of Trustees Tuesday evening, Dan Shinoff, an attorney who provides legal counsel to the board clearly said he does not see a conflict of interest with three candidates that are running for open seats on the board even though two are married to members of the credentialed teaching staff and one is the husband of a retired teacher receiving district benefits.

Shinoff did add, “It’s a very complex issue. As lawyers, we rely on appellate court decisions on these types of matters, but there is not a lot of case law on these issues.”

Teacher Tim Hauck, who spoke during the Public Comment portion of the meeting, summarized the situation by saying, “The voters have to decide if they feel this is too big of a conflict of interest, regardless if it is legally permissible.” Hauck went on to pose questions to the board members, making several points concerning potential conflict of interest issues.


“You vote on your own compensation, your own benefits,” Hauck said. “Is that a conflict of interest? If you act to improve the school, you improve your property value. Is that a conflict of interest?” Shinoff nodded his head in understanding to Hauck’s questions.

For the three board hopefuls being supported by the Teacher’s Association – Bill O’Connor, Mike Schulte and Marc Steffler, the insight and validation shared Tuesday night by Shinoff could be declared a milestone in their campaign. The three hopefuls are running against incumbents Jim Hutcherson and Fran White. Sitting board member Ed Puett’s term expires as well, but he is not seeking re-election.

Information Shinoff shared in the meeting centered on Government Code 1090, which, in summary, prohibits public officials from entering into contracts that will financially benefit them. However, it also states that if the official in question is voting on a matter that benefits a large group of people, versus an individual (the family member) a conflict of interest may not exist. In the case of contract negotiations for the certificated teaching staff or classified employees, the decision made pertains to the group as a whole.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Nathan Barankin of the California Attorney General’s office said the crux of the matter may be in how a “group” is defined – and how large the group must be.

“The question centers around how broad of a class it affects,” he said. “The fact that you might gain some benefit doesn’t necessarily make a violation, but I can’t tell you that for sure.”

“In the California Education Code 35107 (e) it clearly says a public official must abstain from voting on personnel matters that uniquely affects a relative, but it doesn’t appear to affect them in voting on collective bargaining pertaining to a class of employees,” Barankin said.


“The way this would be answered definitively for us would likely be through a court decision,” he added.

While the Attorney General’s opinions are persuasive, they are not necessarily a binding precedent in court.

In presenting an informative session in regards to board ethics earlier in the evening, Shinoff discussed the importance of public perception.

“In short, public service ethics is not only about doing the right thing, but also about the public’s confidence that indeed the right thing has been done,” he said. “It is important to understand that each board member is responsible to all residents of the district and not solely to those who elected him/her; nor solely to any organization to which he/she may belong, or which may have supported his/her election.”

“The law only sets a minimum standard for ethical conduct,” he said. “Just because an action is legal doesn’t mean that it is ethical. Or that it reflects your or the public’s values.”

“In all actions as a school Board member, the member’s first commitment is to the well-being of our youth. His/her primary responsibility is to every student in the district,” Shinoff said.

 

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