ethics & campaign finance law

Folks have already noticed that there is virtually a total overlap between School-affiliated people (School Committee and School Administration staff) and the School Building Committee, and that between them there is also again significant overlap with the ballot question committee, BOLD.

In fact, almost all the members of the SBC have current or past affiliations with the School district, or were hand-picked, in a process that was not advertised and excluded other volunteers. And almost all of the School Committee members are working for BOLD. At many of their events and tabling, BOLD has been using materials produced by the architects and OPM, who are paid by the Town with public dollars.

This raises real ethical questions, although admittedly, it’s probably hard to draw the line when you work for the School District, serve on the committee making the decisions, and volunteer with the lobbying group.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has already drawn the lines for us, to prevent public funds and public resources being used in active political campaigns. Based on the conversation at Tuesday’s School Building Committee meeting, I thought it would be helpful to remind our public officials of the clearly stated law against using public money to advocate for a ballot question.  I also wanted to know if public money has already been spent on this purpose.

You can read my letter below, sent last night to Mike Morris (Acting Superintendent) and Irv Rhodes, who is apparently chairing the outreach efforts.

Let me be clear. I want voters to have information. I started working on this issue a year ago, by telling people who had never known that this issue was the table, at a time when I didn’t know how I felt about it. I made ways for people to communicate their views. I want people to know the facts, and I want them to weigh in — my entire professional life, as a librarian and as an information law attorney, has been dedicated to helping make sure people can access the facts and speak their minds.

And I would defend the right of our elected officials, including the ones with which I disagree, to speak their own minds on their own time and their own dime.

But it is absolutely unethical to use public funds to advocate for a policy position.

If our elected officials have done so, then we deserve to know it.

So I reminded our School Administration and School Building Committee of the clear law on this question, and I asked for information about whether they’ve already spent town money on prohibited activities. I’ll post the Public Records Act responses here.

The letter I sent last night is here, and I’ll post the Public Records Act responses here too, and any subsequent communication. (The letter is a public record and you are therefore free to re-distribute it as you like.)

I’m also posting the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case Anderson v. City of Boston, which is a fun read. And you all might like to read this letter from the Office of Campaign & Political Finance, sent to a School Superintendent just last year on a ballot override in North Attleboro.  Putting on my librarian and legal educator hat for a moment, if you’re scared of reading legal cases — don’t be. They’re actually pretty fun and tell a story, and it’s totally worth reading them.

Laura Quilter


 

8:57 am
Irv Rhodes:
I respectfully decline your request until,it is determine by council that I am subject to a Public Records Request.

11:34 am

From: Mike Morris

Dear Ms. Quilter,

Thank you for the email.  I will forward the Public Records Request to Debbie Westmoreland, who handles such requests for the district.
I apologize that you received some inaccurate information about the School Building Committee meeting.  While there was a Communication Working Group, there was no discussion nor plans for the report created by that Working Group to be distributed to the polling places at UMass.  There is, however, an interest in making a report publicly available from the School Building Committee with accurate information for voters to view as per the regulations you shared with us.  As the description you shared noted, there will be no explicit reference to a ballot question in any report, and public funds will not be used to distribute paper copies to voters.
Best,
Mike

8:54 pm
Dear Mike,

Thanks for getting back to me.  I hope you have also had a chance to read the
letter from the OCPF, May 15, 2015, to North Attelborough (http://files.ocpf.us/pdf/actions/northattleboro2015.pdf), which specifically addresses
 the use of electronic communications.  Use of District resources, including staff
time, mailing lists, etc., is clearly considered by OCPF to be subject to campaign
finance law.  And factual materials, prepared by persons and organizations that
have taken positions on the ballot, cannot be presumed to be “neutral” or merely
factual.
I appreciate your attention to these matters.
Best,
Laura
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