Decatur School Board members attach names to obligation bond campaign

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt October 30, 2015

Decatur School Board members’ names appear on literature promoting a $75 million general obligation bond for school construction despite a legal opinion against public officials campaigning for or against ballot questions.

Legally, Decatur School Board members cannot advocate for the approval or defeat of the bond referendum. A 2012 Attorney General’s opinion says that courts have ruled public officials, “may not use their resources to persuade voters to support or oppose a ballot question.”

School Board Chairman Garrett Goebel said the board members signed their names to campaign materials sent out by Decatur Citizens for Kids as private citizens, not as School Board members.

“There are limitations on what the board can do, particularly with regard to the expenditure of public funds,” Goebel said. “Nothing however restricts what board members can do as individuals. We are not required to forfeit or yield our individual rights. So in answer to your question, yes it is legal for individuals who are board members to endorse and support the efforts of the Decatur Citizens for Kids nonprofit. So long as no public resources are used.”

In addition to Goebel, board members Annie Caiola, Lewis Jones, Julie Rhame and Bernadette Seals all added their names to the list of G.O. Bond supporters in the mailer pictured here:

Here is the 2012 Attorney General’s opinion regarding public officials campaigning for or against a ballot question:

Bond Referendum Letter (1)

The election will be Nov. 3.

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  • Wondering

    So is it legal or not?

    • The School Board thinks it is. Don’t know if they received an official legal opinion on the matter.

  • a mom

    Do you have any indication that they used public funds to support this? I think that would be a problem. If they are donating individually, it should be okay.

  • WhoSaidIt’sNot??

    Public finds were not used so yep, legal.

  • Jeff G

    Where’s the story here? The letter you posted confirms that the decision in Harrison v Rainey clarifies that individual members of the Board of Commissioners had the right to support the initiative in the case in question. The only relevant issue here is whether CSD funds or other resources were used to advocate for the GO Bond or not. There is nothing to suggest that they were. Putting your name on the GoYesDecatur supporters list required nothing more than sending an email or otherwise confirming to the group that you support their goal. Unless you or others are suggesting that the board members on the list sent their expression of support via their email accounts, this seems like a bit of unjustified muckraking–uncharacteristic of the typical evenhandedness we’ve come to expect from Decaturish.

    • I respectfully disagree. It’s a nuance in the law. I personally think the whole concept is asinine. After all, who would know better than the school board as to whether or not the bond would be useful? Still, their names are on campaign materials and there’s a prohibition against campaigning. The expenditure of public funds would make it illegal, but I think the school board members attaching their name to it raises the question of whether it’s a prohibited activity. This has come up in other situations I’ve dealt with, notably TSPLOST where all sorts of people who had an interest in it passing had ti tiptoe around it. No muckraking on my part. I’m just asking a question and getting it answered.

      • Jeff G

        Where do you find a prohibition against campaigning by individuals who happen to hold elected office? All three cases mentioned in Supt. Barge’s letter, as well as the Georgia code which is referenced address the use of government funds and/or other resources to participate in electoral advocacy. I don’t see a prohibition of campaigning by individuals; in fact just the opposite is mentioned in the Harrison decision. Are you referencing other laws or court rulings that aren’t mentioned in the article? I’m not trying to nitpick, just genuinely curious where that interpretation of the law is coming from.

        • My view point has more to do with experience. I think the school board is probably right on the legalities of it. But I’ve seen great pains by officials in similar races to avoid anything that might even create the appearance of campaigning for something like this. I looked this list over a couple of times and didn’t find the names of any of our elected city commissioners on there. Not sure if they were asked or not. To me, it boils down to a style question. Are you comfortable as an elected official lending your name to something when you know someone could raise the issue of you campaigning for it? In some cases, I’ve seen that the officials in question weren’t comfortable. In this case, they appear to think they are on solid ground so they’re going with it. But I would be surprised if they didn’t ask the opinion of their legal counsel first before doing it.

          • Jeff G

            Thanks for clarifying your perspective Dan. I personally support the bond, but even if I didn’t, I think I’d be okay with the board members expressing their individual support in this way. As Decatur residents, they’ll be subject to the same tax effects as anyone else if it passes. I don’t see how any of them gain personally other than that they may have children in the schools who will benefit–again the same as anyone else in Decatur.
            I do understand how some might question the judgment of board members signing on as supporters. My concern was with the implication that they are skirting the law, or drifting into ethical gray areas. I don’t think that’s the case.

  • Glenn Carroll

    GO SLOW NO GO — Can we talk about the GO BOND? First off, GO will max out the City of Decatur’s $200 million credit limit, most of the debt racked up in the past 15 years. Second, the projected numbers of school children upon which the City Schools of Decatur is basing its massive build-out are highly speculative and may be a passing wave at any rate. Currently, the Middle School is providing for 650 additional students and has space for additional modular teaching units which can be disassembled when they are no longer needed, retaining the playing field for future Decatur 6th, 7th and 8th graders. Especially in light of the shocking City of Decatur tax increase resulting from DeKalb County’s sharp upward reappraisal of Decatur homes — VOTE NO GO!

    • Matthew Marston

      Are you talking about the state’s constitutional debt limit for Decatur? Back of the envelope (2014), the debt limit is something like $137M and only GO (general obligation) bonds are subject to limit. We have approximately $31M in outstanding GO bonds so another $75M puts us at $106M leaving at minimum $30M of a buffer. I’m not aware of any “credit limit” for Decatur.

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