APOC staff nixes advocacy

Recommendation reverses advice given to school district in February

Posted: Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The staff of the Alaska Public Offices Commission is recommending that the Juneau School District not be allowed to spend money to influence the upcoming election on the Dimond Park high school.

The way the district appropriated money recently to influence an election no longer matches APOC's interpretation of the law, the agency's staff said in a report issued Tuesday. But the district shouldn't be fined because it hasn't spent any of the $750 appropriation and thus hasn't broken the law, the report said.

The report also suggests a way for school districts to legally advocate in elections.

The commissioners are scheduled to consider the staff recommendations at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in a teleconference between Anchorage and Juneau.

APOC is responding to a complaint from former Juneau City Manager Dave Palmer, who argued that state election law clearly says public appropriations to influence elections can come only through state statutes or municipal ordinances. The Juneau School Board appropriated the funds itself.

The staff recommendation reverses the advice that APOC staff gave in February to district officials and the district's lawyer, Ann Gifford, who asked what steps the district should take to be allowed to advocate in elections. At the time, the APOC staff advised that the School Board would need to appropriate funds at a public meeting, the report said.

"We think the principle of that advice was sound advice, and we'll be preparing a response to the staff report," Superintendent Peggy Cowan said Tuesday.

Palmer said Tuesday it speaks well of APOC's staff that it was willing to re-evaluate its previous advice.

"I'm glad they agreed with me," he added.

State law does allow public entities such as school boards to spend public funds to influence ballot measures. But the entities must do so through a specific appropriation in a public process. The state wanted to make sure the public has a chance to know about, and comment on, a proposed appropriation.

The question before APOC is whether the appropriations could come only through a state statute or municipal ordinance. In giving its previous advice to the school district, APOC staff had relied on its own regulation, which broadly referred to "appropriating agencies."

The regulation was intended partly to make sure school boards could allocate funds to influence elections, as the law intends. The state gives school boards the sole discretion over how to spend school funds.

The city faces a special election on May 25 to decide whether to spend 1999 bond funds to build a high school at Dimond Park. Palmer is one of the organizers of the citizens' initiative, which effectively would block the high school. The Juneau School Board has passed a resolution supporting the school.

Last month, the School Board approved a new policy allowing it to spend public funds on ballot measures. The policy says the district will provide nonpartisan information and may communicate the School Board's official position on ballot measures.

But the board's position might be considered partisan information, requiring a prior appropriation. Information is nonpartisan if it doesn't advocate a position in the election, an APOC regulation says. School Board members said they passed the policy to cover the district under the election-spending law.

The APOC staff now says the School Board, to be legal, should have allocated the funds in this fiscal year's budget. The Juneau Assembly's appropriation of last year's local funding for the schools in an ordinance would have met the election law's requirement, the APOC report said.

"The ordinance could be said to have included the allocation and thus have specifically appropriated it," as state law requires, the APOC staff report said.

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