Former City Manager Dave Palmer said the Juneau School Board broke state law Tuesday by appropriating funds to influence elections.
But the Juneau School District has said the state approved such appropriations. The board budgeted for disseminating ballot-initiative information.
Palmer filed a complaint with the Alaska Public Offices Commission on Wednesday, alleging that state election-spending law allows appropriations to influence elections only through state law or municipal ordinance.
Palmer is one of the organizers of a ballot initiative, scheduled for a special election on May 25, that effectively would block construction of a high school at Dimond Park. The board supports the school.
The School Board passed a policy Tuesday that says it won't seek to influence elections. It's similar to its previous policy. But the board also appropriated up to $750 to prepare and distribute information about the upcoming special election.
Board members said they don't intend to publish partisan election materials, but they want to be sure they are covered under the law if impartial information is perceived as partisan. The law requires public entities that want to spend money to influence a ballot measure to specifically appropriate funds for that purpose.
Before considering the new policy, the Juneau School District had received an opinion from APOC that the School Board could appropriate such funds, rather than rely on a city ordinance, Superintendent Peggy Cowan said.
"We were following APOC advice," Cowan said. "We think it's a prudent and responsible policy and that the (Juneau) Board of Education, as the leaders of schooling in the community, need to be sure that they're able to provide information to the public on school issues, and that the plan always has been to do it in a fair and objective, responsible manner."
APOC Director Brooke Miles reiterated that position Wednesday in a phone interview from Anchorage. She added that it was common for school boards in Alaska to appropriate funds to influence elections.
APOC has promulgated a regulation on the issue, which has the force of law. It refers simply to the actions of an appropriating body. School boards qualify under that phrase, Miles said.
"I think Mr. Palmer is having a semantic issue with us there because we've always interpreted it as the body that is allocating funds," Miles said. The Juneau School Board "must make decisions allocating their money all the time. That's what the board does," she said.
But to Palmer, the words in the statute are clear and the statute overrides a regulation, he said.
In his complaint, Palmer said the School Board is not an appropriating body, the appropriation didn't specify it was intended to influence an election, and the appropriation wasn't adopted by a municipal ordinance.
"The expenditure of public money to influence an election is sensitive," Palmer said. "That's why there's a specific statute that requires a specific appropriation for the purpose of influencing an election be adopted by municipal ordinance."
Palmer has asked APOC to hold a hearing within a day or two.
"If the board proceeds with this improper authority they gave themselves, they could cause harm that can't be remedied by penalties," he said. "Because the election is close at hand, we need APOC to respond quickly."
But Miles said she likely won't recommend the commission do that. Ordinarily, APOC gives the subject of the complaint 15 days to file a voluntary response. The commission takes another 45 days to prepare a recommendation, and the commission reviews it at its next regular meeting. That's in late June.
Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce has asked the school district to rephrase its action as an allocation, rather than an appropriation, because the city charter allows only the Juneau Assembly to appropriate funds. She didn't dispute the board's authority to spend the money.
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