Alaska Public Offices Commissioners asked staff members Monday to take a closer look at the advice they gave the Juneau School Board before it appropriated $750 to disseminate information about the May 25 special election on the planned Dimond Park high school.
After the School Board approved the appropriation last week, former City Manager Dave Palmer filed a complaint with the commission, alleging the board had violated a state election-spending law.
Palmer was one of the organizers of a ballot initiative that forced the election. If the initiative passes, it would effectively block the school's construction.
The commissioners, who heard the positions of Palmer and school district representatives Monday afternoon in APOC's Juneau Office, asked staff members to recommend a decision next Tuesday. They will give parties in the case an opportunity to react to the recommendation when they meet to discuss the matter again May 6.
Attorney Joe Geldhof, representing Palmer at Monday's hearing, said the issue was "essentially a straight matter of law." He argued that the board action violated it because the appropriation must be done through state statutes or municipal ordinances.
Attorney Ann Gifford, representing the school board, argued that the Assembly doesn't have authority over specific school district expenditures. She argued that courts have interpreted the law to allow school boards to make such decisions.
Depending on how APOC rules, the matter may have to be decided in court, Geldhof said.
Assistant Attorney General Jan DeYoung, advising the commission by telephone from Anchorage, said the courts would be the ultimate decision-makers. She said courts can overrule the commission or the attorney general.
She also said she agreed with the School Board's understanding of the interpretation of the law.
APOC Deputy Director Chris Ellingson said Monday from Anchorage that she stood behind her advice to the school district and believed it consistent with the law.
Commissioner Larry Wood, also speaking from Anchorage, said he wanted the law clarified to him and also wanted to address the question of whether the board can spend public money to simply state the position of the school board.
Commissioner John Dapcevich, attending the meeting in Juneau, objected to the School Board using the money to advocate a position.
"I wouldn't want to see any public body using public money to influence an election," he said.
Commissioner Roger Holl said from Anchorage that he was concerned with following the law. "I think school districts should be able to use state money, but I'm not the one who writes the statutes."
Ellingson said she believed it would be the duty of a public body to inform the public of its decision, even if some might see that as influencing an election.
Juneau School Superintendent Peggy Cowan told commissioners that the school board wanted to be able to get information about the election out. As a district policy points out, reasonable people may disagree on the objectivity of the information, which is why the appropriation allows for advocacy.
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