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Law crystal clear: Public officials can’t abuse public resources

It’s been a rough few weeks for the Clark County School Board. The School Board’s voting procedure for installing Pat Skorkowsky as superintendent was called into question, prompting the Nevada attorney general’s office to look into complaints that trustees violated the state’s open meeting law. School Board member Deanna Wright faces a complaint accusing her of failing to report campaign contributions accurately and in a timely manner.

And another shoe dropped Wednesday when the Ethics Commission announced it had found sufficient evidence to conduct a hearing into whether school district officials used taxpayer resources to campaign for Clark County Question 2 last year. The proposal sought to increase property taxes to pay for construction and renovations, but it went down in flames, with 66 percent of voters rejecting it.

State law prohibits public employees from “requesting” or causing a government entity to “incur expense or make expenditure to support or oppose a ballot question.” That’s a pretty cut-and-dried definition. As Ethics Commission Executive Director Caren Cafferata-Jenkins said, there is no wiggle room. School Board President Carolyn Edwards and Associate Superintendent Joyce Haldeman face a July 17 hearing on whether they willfully violated that law.

The fact that the commission found enough evidence to hold a hearing is astonishing, and it suggests at least some overstepping of boundaries. Furthermore, both Ms. Edwards and Ms. Haldeman said in a response to the commission that they did use district resources in the Question 2 campaign. Ms. Edwards had a school district employee send out an email blast seeking volunteers for the initiative, and Ms. Haldeman directed school district personnel to pick up Question 2 campaign materials for a political action committee and transport those materials from the printers to district facilities using district vehicles. Ms. Haldeman told the Review-Journal in October that the PAC would be billed $648 for those expenses, but the law also states that even reimbursed expenses in support of a ballot question are not allowable.

The question, apparently, is whether Ms. Edwards or Ms. Haldeman willfully violated the law. Regardless, good for the Ethics Commission for convening a hearing. There’s a clear, understandable line between calling for tax increases and using public resources to demand more money from the public, and whether willful or not, these officials should have known to not even come close to crossing that line.

The timing of this hearing is important, given that another education tax question will appear on the 2014 ballot: a margins tax initiative championed by the teachers union. Public school employees will be tempted to use public resources — or allow students to use public resources — to campaign for the question.

If the law is not clear enough for these officials or others, allow us to simplify it: Don’t use public money or any public resources to ask for more public money. Ever.

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