ESUSD may have violated conflict of interest law
The community has continued to keep a watchful eye on the Eastern Sierra Unified School District ever since budget issues plagued the District earlier this year. Recently, concerns were raised regarding closed session meetings being held by the ESUSD Board with its attorneys to discuss alleged conflict of interest violations surrounding the promotion of Board member Doug Northington’s wife, who works for the school district, six years ago.
The initial reaction from community members that were asked by The Sheet about the subject matter was that it was a “witch hunt” and that perhaps someone was so unhappy with the recent election results of new Board members that they had decided to dig back six years in search of allegations against Northington. After a bit more questioning, however, it was determined that the Board indeed may have acted inappropriately.
In an official statement from Board President Margie Beaver, she said, “It has come to the attention of the Board of Trustees of the Eastern Sierra Unified School District that conflict of interest laws may have been inadvertently violated when the employment status of the spouse of a Board member was modified in 2004. The wife of Trustee Doug Northington was employed by the District for several years before her husband joined the Board. Her employment status was changed from that of a part-time aide/part-time secretary to full-time secretary in 2004, with Mr. Northington abstaining from the vote on the decision.”
The statement went on to explain that while an abstention is all that is necessary to address potential conflicts of interest in areas like these under the Political Reform Act and the California Education Code, a third law regarding conflict of interest, Government Code Section 1090, may have prohibited the Board’s action altogether.
“We represent a lot of school districts and the common belief is that an abstention is enough,” said Grant Herndon of Schools Legal Service, the firm that represents ESUSD. He pointed out that there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to conflict of interest laws, but under 1090, “the Board needed to look closely at whether they could approve the change in employment or not. It likely would have been prohibited.”
The reason behind the prohibition is that the change in employment presumably increased benefits to Northington because his wife would be making more in a full-time position than a part-time position.
In regard to the employment at the District of former Board member Randy Gilbert’s spouse as well as Superintendent Don Clark’s spouse, Herndon clarified that it is fine for spouses of Board members to be employed at the District; the issue specifically arises when there is a change in employment that has to go before the Board.
Since the issue at hand took place more than four years ago, the statute of limitations in 1090 has been reached, which according to Herndon means that the issue of whether or not Mrs. Northington would have to pay back salary received since the promotion is no longer subject to legal challenge.
Herndon also clarified that there is nothing in any of the conflict of interest laws that says Mr. Northington would need to step down from the Board because of this matter.
When asked to comment on the situation, Northington referred The Sheet to Beaver’s statement, which concluded by saying “In the future the Board will take all necessary steps to ensure a timely and comprehensive review of any changes in employment status involving an employee who is the spouse of a sitting Board member.”