CCSD contract vote raises questions of conflict


Like many families during these tough economic times, Clark County School Board member Deanna Wright has worried about her husband losing his job.

"We're in the same boat as a lot of families," she said.

Unlike many spouses, Wright got to weigh in on her husband's union contract, which gave him a half-percent raise worth about $109 based on his annual salary of $21,902 for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

As a board member, Wright ratified the Clark County School District's contract with the Education Support Employees Association, which represents 11,582 support staff employees, including Wright's husband. Jason Wright is a typist clerk at Coronado High School in Henderson.

Deanna Wright disclosed the relationship before the board's 6-0 ratification vote on June 24.

As a board member, she also has voted to increase work orders for the construction firm of Martin & Harris. Before voting, she did not disclose that her mother had been laid off by the firm in November 2008.

Because her mother lost her accounting job at Martin & Harris before Wright was elected to the board, she did not see any impropriety or need for disclosure.

"I think you're really grasping at straws here," Wright said after a July meeting where improving the School Board's public image was discussed.

But ethicists argue that public officials should disclose any potential conflicts to keep the process above reproach.

Nancy Rapoport, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, does not believe disclosure is "enough" when a direct relationship, such as husband and wife, is involved.

"Probably the better part of valor is to recuse yourself and just not vote," she said.

Critics have taken issue with Wright's vote on her husband's union contract as conflict of interest. But Mary-Anne Miller, county counsel for the Clark County district attorney's office and adviser to the School Board, believes Wright's disclosure before the union vote was sufficient under the state's ethics in government law.

Miller noted that Jason Wright was not singled out for special treatment and received the same benefits that went to all employees subject to the contract. Under the circumstances, Miller said, the law, Nevada Revised Statute 281A.420(4)(A), presumes that the judgment of a public official would not be affected.

"It's not like I was voting on an individual contract," Deanna Wright said.

The support workers union agreed to give up longevity-based pay raises next year to save the district about $10 million. But support staff received half-percent pay increases to offset an increase of individual contributions to the state's Public Employees Retirement System.

Money for the raises will be diverted from the district's contributions to the support staff's medical premiums.

Miller said she didn't believe the small raise was "enough to change the mind of a reasonable person," citing the law.

"To use a hypothetical number, is $200 going to influence the average trustee in that position? I don't think so," Miller said. "If it's $5,000, maybe that's something different."

In her financial disclosure statement for 2010 filed with the secretary of state's office, Wright listed income from a household member's school district job and unemployment benefits as her family's sources of income.

She said her husband is the main breadwinner for their family, which includes their two sons, ages 11 and 17, and her mother who lives with them in Henderson.

As a School Board member, Wright receives a $9,000 annual stipend. She said she does not have other employment.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes had warned that district layoffs might be necessary to balance a $145 million budget shortfall brought on by state cuts and declining revenue from property taxes. Wright said she did worry that her husband might lose his job based on "what another union might do."

Unions representing district employees agreed to about $28 million in concessions to avert big job cuts for next year.

When the board ratified three union contracts in June for administrators, support staff and teachers, School Board member Sheila Moulton also disclosed that her daughter and son-in-law are teachers for the district.

Andy Matthews, a spokesman for the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute, said, "It was encouraging to see the law was followed. Disclosure was made in compliance with Nevada law. We at NPRI believe transparency in government is of the utmost importance."

David Fott, an associate professor of political science at UNLV, said conflict of interest has historically been a "tough issue" in Nevada because of the low population. If the law was strictly enforced, it might make it "difficult to do business."

Fott also said that because the area has grown -- Clark County has become the fifth-largest public school system in the nation with 308,000 students -- public officials should be sensitive to perception.

"I'm not at all positive I have the best answer to this, but one place to draw the line is that you should abstain where you have a direct financial interest, or maybe more generally, where you could reasonably be thought to be biased," Fott said.

Fott said he has no reason to believe that Moulton and Wright are anything but "honorable people," but "maybe they should have abstained."

Ron Taylor, a former teacher and 2008 candidate for the School Board, believes the law is clear that public officials should avoid voting on issues where they have a financial incentive.

Shortly after the School Board approved the new labor agreements, Taylor filed a complaint against Wright with the Nevada Commission on Ethics because she voted on the support staff contract.

Caren Jenkins, executive director of the commission, wrote back to Taylor that the commission was not going to respond to his complaint because he failed to allege specific facts and circumstances and produce evidence.

Taylor had cited the meeting and Wright's vote in his complaint. He called the commission lazy.

"They want you to put together the case for them," Taylor said. "If I have to make their case, I also want to decide the punishment."

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

 

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