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Monday, April 16, 2007

Conflict of Interest Disclosure Request Drew Ire of Best Uses of Schools Task Force Member

Following the closing of the Valley Oak Elementary School, the People's Vanguard of Davis made a formal request to the Davis Joint Unified School Board to obtain public records in the form of communications between Best Uses of School Task Force (BUSTF) members and the school board and school district. The public documents we received were very revealing in many ways. This article is the first of several that will appear in these spaces that will reveal some of the thinking behind those who served on the BUSTF.

On January 5, 2007 Davis OPEN member Baki Tezcan presented concern about a development project in the Valley Oak area and wanted to ascertain that none of the members of the had a financial stake in this development project.

He wrote:
"Now if you add on top of the available space the acreage that would become vacant once Valley Oak is closed, you get a much larger area to develop/infill, a very attractive investment opportunity. Hence my request for public conflict of interest disclosures. Both the Board and the Task Force include members who work with developers, so my neighbors in the Valley Oak area would sleep better if they knew no other interests got in to the choice of our school for closure than those of our kids."
Task force Vice Chair Jan Bridge, herself a former school board member and longtime community resident who should have been well-versed in conflict of interest disclosure requirements complained vehemently about such a requirement. She fired off an angry email to school board members, administrator Penny Pyle, and Baki Tezcan himself.
"I can only begin to tell you how completely and totally offended and insulted I am by the DEMAND that the members of the BUSTF be required to file conflict of interest disclosures.

As a 26 year resident of Davis, a school volunteer since 1983, and a retired Trustee, I find the implications of this letter to be completely with out merit. YOU can easily imagine where the adoption of such a requirement could lead in a District that has long depended on the goodwill and generous donation of time and talents of the many citizens of Davis.

Should the trustees adopt such a requirement, I will resign the task force in protest."
My reaction to reading this is the lady doth protest too much.

First, really some background. As many are aware, the city of Davis requires all commissioners to fill out and sign standard conflict of interest forms. In fact, right now they are approving updates to their conflict of interest rules. So rather being some type of extraordinary requirement, this is actually a standard disclosure. In fact, it is shocking that the district at this time did not require such disclosures on their own. There was a long debate on the city general plan housing element steering committee about the level of conflict of interest papers that should be required.

The City's ordinance reads:
"Pursuant to Government Code Section 87302, the code will designate employees and officials who must disclose certain investments, income, interests in real property and business positions, and who must disqualify themselves from making or participating in the making of governmental decisions affecting those interests."
Should not the school board whose members sit on a task force that might have just as much stake financially in their decisions be required to do no less? If indeed there are development projects impacted by the decision to close a school it seems to me perfectly legitimate that task force members who were highly influential in the decision to ultimately close the school fill out forms disclosing whether this was the case. For most of them, the answer would undoubtedly be, "no."

Second, the district has since passed new rules pertaining to conflicts of interest. And now they would require all members of any newly appointed task force to sign them.

So Bridge's comments seem totally out of line. First, the requirement should not have been taken as any sort of insult. It was not personally directed at her (or it should not have been). Second, if the task force was formed now, guess what, she and the other task force members would be forced to fill out conflict of interest forms.

So it appears from the stand point of policy that her complaint made very little sense. It certainly made little sense for her to take it as a personal slight.

But I think the most stunning thing was the level of her outrage for what appears to be such a minor issue.

She is "completely and totally offended and insulted" to the point where she would "resign the task force in protest." That response seems totally and completely out of line. The request itself was not only reasonable it should have been standard. Had I read this response by Ms. Bridge, my response would have been, what do you have to hide?

That might not have been fair, and perhaps this was just a principled objection, but to me it raises some red flags. Why don't you want to have to fill out a conflict of interest form? Do you have vast financial stakes in this property? We know that Ms. Bridge was one of the leaders in the Covell Village campaign. Her picture and quotes appear in numerous fliers and quotes supporting the project. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but does that mean she has development interests in the area that may be impacted by a school closing?

Sadly we will not know the answer to those questions. However, this public record seems rather revealing about the mindset of some of the commissioners, that she would be personally offended by the requested signing of a standard form is rather appalling.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting