Campaign spending on ballot question may put Clark County School District in ethics cross hairs


Clark County School District officials have teetered on the tightrope separating legal and illegal campaign spending leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

While not directly campaigning for a ballot question to raise property taxes, school officials have intermingled related expenses and activities with a political action committee, the School Improvement Committee, created by four former Nevada first ladies to support the issue. PACs are created to campaign, but state law prohibits public officials from using government resources to do so.

Nevada Policy Research Institute spokesman Victor Joecks said the conservative think tank may file a complaint against the district with the Nevada Commission on Ethics, claiming evidence of a "clear violation of the ethics law."

If found to have violated the law, district officials could face fines of up to $5,000 and the commission could recommend they be fired. However, such findings would not change the outcome of the ballot question, state officials said.

"They (NPRI) accuse us of being in the gray area, but we've kept it clean," said Cynthia Sell, district director of special projects.

Nevada's ethics in government law allows the district to provide information to the public about its request to increase property taxes by 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, or $74.20 per year for a property assessed at $100,000.

The district has spent $22,000 on glossy brochures that were sent to all 225,000 families of students in the country's fifth-largest district, according to Joyce Haldeman, the district's associate superintendent of community and government relations. The three-page brochure argues a "crucial need" for the estimated $669 million for improvements at 40 schools, calling the tax increase a "fiscally conservative plan."

"While it never says 'Vote yes on Question 2,' the implication is obvious," Joecks said, acknowledging that the legality of the brochures is debatable.

Government brochures often are in a gray area and must be considered on a case-by-case basis, said Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics.

"Intention is the question," she said, noting that the commission would look at the brochure's timing if a complaint is filed.

Election season points to campaigning motives, although that also is when voters need information.

They shouldn't be telling people to vote yes, Cafferata-Jenkins said. They should just be saying, "We have a need."

State law prohibits public employees from "requesting" or causing a governmental entity "to incur expense or make expenditure to support or oppose a ballot question." There's no wiggle room, Cafferata-Jenkins said.

Haldeman, the district's liaison with the PAC, said she is being "so careful about how district resources are being spent."

She said the district didn't pay for the PAC's "Vote yes on Question 2" door hangers, buttons, T-shirts and yard signs.

However, she said, district personnel picked up the PAC's campaign materials from the printers, and district vehicles were used to transport them to district facilities where they were stored.

Haldeman said the PAC would be billed $648 for those expenses. But the law states the government cannot incur an expense, reimbursed or not, in supporting the ballot question.

"I personally made the decision to keep the materials here so parents wanting to volunteer could pick them up," said Haldeman, noting that parents often come to district staff for help in supporting the ballot question.

On top of that, several members of Clark County School Board emailed parents about an Oct. 20 walk to "distribute door hangers and yard signs to registered voters encouraging them to support Question 2."

Because all participants, including district staff, were volunteering on a Saturday, there was no district expense. But School Board members told parents to contact Haldeman's office, meaning district staff organized the walk during work hours.

The district also put a volunteer sign-up link on its website at www.ccsd.net/district/capital-improvement-plan/volunteer.php. The link has been removed.

It remains to be seen how much the PAC spent on campaign materials, though that should have been spelled out in its latest expense report, filed with the Nevada secretary of state.

The expenses were not listed in the PAC's most recent report, which is supposed to show all expenses from Jan. 1 through Oct. 12. This includes campaign materials first made available at an Oct. 9 public meeting at Valley High School.

The PAC's report lists only the cost of a $33,600 poll paid for on June 26. By Oct. 12, the PAC had collected $104,700, including a $25,000 NV Energy donation.

PAC representative Sandy Miller said the campaign expenses weren't included because the PAC hadn't received the invoices yet. Miller is the wife of former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller and mother of Secretary of State Ross Miller.

However, the PAC by law must report expenses "made during the period."

"The PAC cannot wait until it receives the invoice to report the expense," Nevada Deputy Secretary for Elections Scott Gilles said.

Nevada first ladies Bonnie Bryan, Dema Guinn and Dawn Gibbons are the other PAC members, but finances are left up to Bob McCord, who was an assistant Clark County schools superintendent from 1971 to 1999.

When asked for the invoices on Monday, McCord said he hadn't received them and doesn't know when he will.

"I don't mean to be evasive," he said. "Talk to Joyce (Haldeman) about those items."

Haldeman said Monday that she had no information about invoices, that she just reviews the PAC's campaign materials to ensure information about the district and its ballot question are accurate.

She said invoices for campaign materials would come from the PAC's public relations firm, R&R Partners.

R&R Partners on Tuesday and Wednesday billed the PAC $42,095 for the materials, McCord said Wednesday evening.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

 

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