Berkeley County case: Ethics a fine line in school referendums
School districts often look to voters for help in finding the money to update old buildings and build new ones.
Referendum do’s and don’ts
The school district, its board members and employees may not engage in any activity on official time or use county resources that promote or oppose a certain vote.Prohibited activities on county time include:Promoting the support for or opposition to the ballot measure.Collecting funds to support a vote yes or no campaign.Printing, copying, emailing or mailing any materials advocating a particular votes, i.e., “Vote Yes Nov. 6.”Sending emails or making phone calls which either support or oppose the ballot measure on county time.Wearing T-shirts or buttons that advocate a yes or no vote while on the clock. Organizing “Vote Yes” or “Vote No” rallies. Be careful — pitfallsUsing school district computers, emails or phones to organize support for the referendum. Remember that communications using official devices can be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.Source: “Referendum Do’s and Don’ts” prepared by the McNair Law Firm, Berkeley County School District’s lawyers for the referendum
In doing so they walk a fine line, officials say.
“School districts can provide information about the referendum, but where the line is drawn is you cannot tell people how to vote,” said Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the S.C. School Boards Association. “That’s the key.”
The Berkeley County School District is facing accusations of ethics violations surrounding last year’s Yes 4 Schools campaign after Daniel Island lawyer Josh Whitley questioned whether the district used its own employees and resources to produce fliers and videos to promote the campaign. The district maintains that the campaign was run by volunteers.
In January, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh requested an investigation from the State Ethics Commission and the State Law Enforcement Division, saying there are “potential numerous violations of the South Carolina Ethics Act.” Investigators have been in the district in recent weeks, sources said.
Officials at the Attorney General’s Office and SLED said they could not recall a time when similar accusations have been brought against any other school district or governmental body.
“More often than not, this comes up with schools because they have the most bond referendums,” said Cathy Hazelwood, general counsel and deputy director of the Ethics Commission. Hazelwood would not speak specifically about the Berkeley County investigation.
She said it has been four or five years since complaints were filed against a district in Florence County for sending emails or “telephone blasts” from the district office to the staff and distributing pro-referendum correspondence via students.
“I thought that the word had gone out because of the Florence cases,” said Hazelwood, who addressed referendum and election ethics at a S.C. School Boards Association meeting last month.
In those cases, the district admitted the violation and was publicly reprimanded, she said.
Last year, three school districts in South Carolina put school improvement referendums to voters: Marlboro County School District sought $20 million to build a new K-8 school; Dorchester District 2 wanted $186.4 million for an aquatic center, four new schools and upgrades to 10 others; and Berkeley County School District asked for $198 million for five new schools and improvements to more than 20 others.
All three referendums passed, and only Berkeley County is facing accusations.
“People get confused because they hear you can’t use resources and they think that means even to provide information,” Elmore said. “It’s the district’s obligation to get out the facts about a referendum. If they don’t, I’m sure others will and it might not be correct.”
Hazelwood said, “The statute is clear. ... A governmental entity may not use public funds, property or time in an attempt to influence the outcome of a ballot measure.”
She said the “magic words” are vote for, vote against, support and defeat.
“It has to have the magic words for it to be in violation (of statute),” she said. “If you’re using the magic words and you’re using public equipment, materials, time, staff, you’ve got a problem.”
Berkeley County School District officials have said it is cooperating with the investigation but has no further comment.
If the district is found guilty of ethics violations, it could face a penalty of up to $2,000 for each penalty, according to the Ethics Commission. Criminal violations are considered a misdemeanor and punishable of fines up to $5,000 or one year in prison.Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.