Survey distributed to parents with possible violations of Election Code laws
Part Two of this series of possible Ethics violation(s) by officials/employees of Round Lake Area School District 116, will go over what some of the various laws dictate when it comes to “official duties” versus private citizen rights and then move onto the public survey that was taken after the failed March referendum..
The primary laws at issue regarding the activities of officials and staff members are the Election Code, the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act and the Illinois Local Governmental Employees Political Rights Act.
The “election interference prohibition” of the Election Code prohibits the use of public funds to urge any elector to vote for or against any candidate or proposition. The statute [imposes] on public officials the duty not to use public funds to try to sway voters on how they should vote, while enabling those officials to disseminate facts which will help the voters make more informed decisions.”).
The State Officials and Employees Ethics Act more comprehensively regulates the use of compensated time and public resources for prohibited political activities in that it further requires all local governmental entities, including school districts, to adopt an ordinance (i.e., Board policy) regulating the political activities of their officers and employees.
In other words no employee shall intentionally perform any “political activity” during any “compensated time” and no Board member or employee shall intentionally use any District property or resources in connection with any political activity,
In addition, the Act contains a specific list of prohibited political activities which include planning, conducting, or participating in a public opinion poll in connection with any referendum question, surveying or gathering information from potential or actual voters in an election to determine probable vote outcome (for or against) of any referendum question, campaigning for or against any referendum question, as well as managing or working on a campaign for or against any referendum question.
In essence employees may not campaign for a referendum or engage in any of the above activities on compensated or official time or while using property or resources of the District. The District may disseminate factual information with the legitimate intent of ensuring an accurate and informed electorate, but not to support or promote a “yes” vote.
The Act does not restrict Board members or certain administrators from providing neutral information about the District’s finances and reasons for seeking a referendum as an official duty. District employees and elected officers may campaign on their own private time in their capacities as private citizens within the limits of the Ethics Act.
The written opinion by District 116’s hired legal counsel attempts to narrow any infraction down to just the activities of Heather Bennett, Executive Assistant to Superintendent Dr. Constance Collins, which would be like saying Bennett was acting without authorization (emails indicate otherwise).
Today we will look at the public opinion survey that the District’s principals handed out to parents in hard copy concerning the election. The survey stated, “As the Board of Education moves forward with planning another question for the November 4, 2014, election, we would like to gather some feedback from our families and community, especially as it relates to communication of the referendum question.” One of the questions asked was “How likely are you to support a $29 million referendum for the High School in November 2014?” while another asked “Would you be interested in serving on a Referendum Committee to promote the referendum? If so, please provide your name and contact information.”
Responses that included names and contact information were then sent by Bennett directly to the chairperson of the External (pro) Referendum Committee. The questions on the survey likely qualify as “prohibited political activities” which their hired counsel agrees. (Planning, conducting, or participating in a public opinion poll in connection with a campaign … for or against any referendum question, surveying or gathering information from potential or actual voters in an election to determine probable vote outcome in connection with a campaign … for or against any referendum question, and managing or working on a campaign … for or against any referendum question). District principals, Ms. Bennett and support staff spent an estimated 10 hours of “compensated time” on the survey and related communications, including distributing and collecting the surveys and analyzing the results (information obtained via FOIA request).
At this point Bennett forwarded the contact information obtained from the questionable survey to the External Referendum Committee Chair.
Not finding a sufficient amount of names from the questionable survey, the External Referendum Committee Chair seeks a list of who was given the survey.
With too few parents responding with their contact information, the seed was planted to create a flier (by Bennett) that would then be posted on all the school’s social media sites and disseminated to various local organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, radio station WRLR-FM, etc.
Our next report will discuss how other school officials were being asked to help the “External (pro)Referendum Committee” without knowing that what they were doing may have been illegal as well as exposing several vendors who are deeply involved and have so much to gain from a successful referendum.
If you missed Part One, use the following link: External Committee Ties Puts District 116 in Damage Control Mode
Link to final Part Three: RLAS District 116 “Damage Control” Part 3 = The Players Involved
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