Officials learn from ethics ruling on school superintendent

We were a lovely audience, but he really had to go.

Among the more entertaining articles recently published in the Review-Journal was the story that captured Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones as he tried to defend his record even as he packed his bags and sprinted from Southern Nevada, leaving more than 300,000 local students behind. Like a rooster taking credit for the sunrise, he crowed about reforms that, thanks to his abrupt departure, were destined to fail.

Clearly, Mr. I’m-in-It-for-the-Long-Haul missed his calling. He should have been a stand-up comedian.

Just three years into his crusade, he resigned with no notice. His lofty goals for the nation’s fifth-largest district barely had time to germinate, much less produce fruit. The best the weak-kneed public schools quarterback could credibly claim is that he had been a remarkable self-promoter and dandy cheerleader: Go, fight, quit.

However unintended, Jones’ self-deflated tenure just might have generated one certifiable upside.

No, really. I mean that sincerely.

After just four months on the job, on Feb. 11, 2011, Jones formally asked the Nevada Commission on Ethics two questions related to receiving money from a foundation’s Superintendent’s Transitional Housing Fund and his possible status as a “public officer.” Such a designation would have compelled him to file a financial disclosure statement listing all his income sources.

The commission determined the Las Vegas Public Education Foundation’s superintendent’s slush fund, while “poor public policy and contrary to the intent of the Ethics Law,” wasn’t illegal because it was approved by the School Board. Fair enough.

After weighing the applicable law and his job description, the commission determined that Jones, while a public employee, technically wasn’t a public “officer.”

But it didn’t discount the superintendent’s need to become one. Because, as almost anyone could see, at least in spirit the superintendent’s enormously important duties make him a public officer of the highest order.

From its written opinion, dated April 4, 2012: “While the Commission declared that the Superintendent of Schools of Clark County is not a public officer based on the limited factors set forth in this decision, the Commission held that the function and duties of the Superintendent otherwise satisfy the remaining elements of the definition of ‘public officer’ set forth in (statute) — exercising a public power, trust and duty.”

In an attempt to make the law clearer and more comprehensive, the Ethics Commission, through state Sen. David Parks, has generated Senate Bill 228. The bill addresses several areas of the state’s ethics law, but the public officer provision seems especially timely in light of the Jones opinion. In fact, Ethics Commission Executive Director Caren Cafferata-Jenkins said Tuesday that Jones’ request for an opinion helped distill in commissioners’ minds the need to hone the law.

“While we have a very substantial measure, the section that modifies the definition of public officer responds to Dr. Jones and other individuals whose positions are authorized to exercise public power, trust, or duty,” Cafferata-Jenkins said.

The challenge for the commission and its legislative allies is carving out changes that accomplish the objective — holding public officials to higher ethical standards — without making the process too unwieldy. The idea, Cafferata-Jenkins said, isn’t to require everyone in government to file a financial disclosure statement.

The Senate bill is scheduled for a hearing in committee Thursday. Although several of the proposed changes appear important, none is more clearly overdue than ensuring future public school superintendents are by definition public officers who must file annual financial statements. It’s a matter of improving the public’s shaky trust in government.

So as you see, we have our dearly departed superintendent of schools to thank for bringing this matter to the attention of the state Ethics Commission.

Something tells me Jones won’t return to claim credit for his accomplishment.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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