School bond campaign tactics under investigation
The Summit County Attorney’s Office is investigating members of the Park City Board of Education as well as opponents of the district’s controversial $56 million bond for allegations of illegal conduct related to the bond.
Robert Hilder, Summit County Attorney, said his office has received multiple reports that Board of Education members may have used public funds to campaign in favor of the bond, which would violate the Political Activities of Public Entities Act. Hilder’s office has also received reports that the anti-bond group Citizens for Better Education may have violated the Utah Election Code by campaigning on school property.
The allegations have surfaced just days before voters were set to cast their final ballots Tuesday to decide the fate of the bond, which has become perhaps the most contentious Election Day item in the county. Early voting on the bond began Oct. 20.
One accusation that has been levied against the Board of Education is that, during assemblies about the bond at Ecker Hill Middle School social studies classes, members of the Board told students to go home and tell their parents to vote "yes." Hilder said that one report indicated a Board member was asked what would happen if the bond failed and responded with, "We can’t allow that to happen."
Hilder said elected officials retain their free-speech rights and can speak as citizens, so if they did, in fact, offer pro-bond messages at the assemblies, the key question regarding the allegations becomes whether public money was used to deliver them.
"It’s a question of whether they used any government resources," Hilder said. "And that’s very broadly construed. It could be the use of the school, or the use of the area where the assembly was held. Of course, some would argue that taking the children from a regular class into a circumstance where the subject matter was advocating for a bond would step over that line. As far as the content of the speech, I don’t think there’s any question he or she can say what he or she thinks."
Another accusation is that the district made a video delivering information on the bond featuring Board members Tania Knauer and Nancy Garrison without granting equal access to opponents of the bond.
"There’s certainly been no suggestion that anyone opposing the bond was invited to be included on the video," Hilder said. "That in itself may well be a violation."
Several members of the Park City Board of Education, including Knauer and Garrison, did not return calls seeking comment.
Park City School District superintendent Ember Conley released an email statement to The Park Record denying that any wrongdoing was intentional. However, the district will comply with Hilder’s investigation and ensure no other similar presentations are given before Election Day.
"Although school board members have an unrestricted right to campaign and advocate for a ballot proposition, we fully understand and appreciate that the district, as an entity, is prohibited from making an expenditure of public funds to influence the bond vote," the statement reads, in part. "We did not believe that the information presented to students involved any expenditure, and the presentation was not intended to cross the line into advocacy.
"While we are hopeful that the district’s understanding of the law and facts will ultimately prevail, we nonetheless want to avoid any appearance of impropriety, and it is our intent to fully comply with the applicable election laws."
The accusations against Citizens for Better Education stem from members of the group handing out fliers on school property, Hilder said. Ali Ziesler, a leader of the group, said Thursday that the Summit County Attorney’s Office had not yet contacted the organization about any complaints. But she believes the investigation likely centers on an incident at a public informational forum the district held about the bond on Oct. 21 at Ecker Hill Middle School.
She said district representatives bristled when the group, which is registered with the state as a political issues committee, showed up at the event and began handing out informational fliers.
"We went to that meeting with the goal of giving information questioning the bond to people as they entered the building," Ziesler said. "Before the meeting began, we were told by a district administrator that we couldn’t be there and were not allowed to hand out information, based on district policy."
The group then asked if it could move to the road, and the administrator said "yes," Ziesler said. She added that the group continued to give out fliers at the intersection of Kilby Road and the frontage road entrance to the school for about an hour, then left.
"We’re not trying to break laws — we’re just trying to get information out there," she said.
Hilder said the investigation into the claims will likely continue for one to two weeks, adding that he does not want a too-hasty conclusion to influence the outcome of the bond.
"I’m not looking to aggressively prosecute here if there was well-meaning but unintentional violation of the law," he said. "I’m certainly not going to prosecute unless I have a very likelihood of getting a conviction. And I’m not trying to quell free speech. The concern we had is probably the people doing this don’t understand it’s a violation of the law, and we don’t want it to continue to close so the election."
Also important to note, Hilder said, is that neither the allegations nor the results of the investigation will invalidate Tuesday’s election, which will be held as planned.
"I hope this, for the most part, is just an education on what people should and should not do," he said.
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE INFORMATION FOR BOND COMMITTEES
Source: Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office
Citizens for Better Education: $4,118.37 in donations
Nutraceutical Corp: $2,000
Alexandria Ziesler: $500
Jess Reid: $357
Nature’s Print: $340
Rachel O’Meara: $291.37
Chuck and Sarah Klingenstein: $250
Joe and Kelly Cronley: $250
PCSD Bond Support: $1,000
James Doilney: $1,000
The school is one of 17 bands and choirs from the U.S. selected to perform during the memorial parade.