A clear conflict of interest

The main charge being brought, with much huffing and puffing, against Chico schools Superintendent Scott Brown and members of the school district’s Board of Trustees—that they violated the state’s open-meeting law by having dinner together while attending out-of-town conferences—lacks merit. A couple of tangential issues, however, are indeed of concern.

Here’s the back story: As is widely known, lots of folks are angry that Brown, backed by four of the five trustees, earlier this year reassigned popular Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan to another position following the disclosure of Sloan’s mishandling of student body funds. In their effort to find dirt on Brown, these Sloan supporters have been digging in public records, among them district travel claims.

As the CN&R reported last week, there they found evidence that, while attending conferences in 2000, 2001 and 2002, Brown, the trustees and another district employee had dinner together. Brown paid the bill and later was reimbursed by the district. Unable to believe these school officials could have dined together without talking about district business, the anti-Brown group is charging a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act forbidding secret meetings by elected officials.

But in fact such social occasions are allowed under the act, and there is no evidence district business was discussed. Nor can anyone entirely fault the trustees for dining in pricey restaurants (the bills ranged from $250 to $450 for seven, up to $65 per meal). It’s small recompense for the hundreds of volunteer hours they contribute, including attending conferences. For symbolism’s sake, however, they should have limited themselves to $25 or so per meal. Perceptions do matter.

As if to acknowledge this truth, Brown later—when the district’s budget tightened—decided it would be inappropriate for taxpayers to fund the dinners. Instead, he began footing the bill.

That’s where he and the trustees are truly wrong. The superintendent simply should not be buying expensive dinners for the people who hold his job in their hands. It’s clearly a conflict of interest.

We hesitate to read bad intentions into these matters. But the laws regarding conflicts of interest exist for good reason. Public officials, elected and otherwise, should scrupulously follow them.