Canyons School Board tables code of ethics plan amid disagreement

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 9:14 p.m. MDT

SANDY — The Canyons Board of Education tabled discussion of a new Code of Ethics Tuesday after board members expressed concerns about ambiguity and potential illegality in the code's language. 

The debate centered on two provisions in the proposed code. The first allows for the board, with a two-thirds majority, to removed from office a member whose continued and willful violation of the code constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors or malfeasance in office."

The second provision says that board members should respect the "division of labor" in the district by not dealing directly with district employees. That directive is potentially in conflict with an earlier provision in the code, which says board members should "seek systematic communications between the board and students, staff and all elements of the community."

While some members of the board were clear in their support or opposition to the proposed code, others, such as board president Tracy Cowdell and boardmember Mont Millerberg, expressed frustration over the way the discussion of a code of ethics had dragged on. Cowdell said that "back in the old days" the question of communicating with employees was a non-issue because board members always checked with the superintendent before visiting with faculty and staff.

Millerberg said he was at a stalemate on the code, due in part to the division among members of the committee that prepared the final draft. 

"It's really kind of a strange deal," Millerberg said. "You authorize a committee to put together a document. I would think the committee would be united on what's proposed."

Boardmember Steven Wrigley, who participated on the drafting committee, said that he raised objections at the committee level and still felt that the language prohibiting communication with district employees needed to be clarified.

But Paul McCarty, who also served on the drafting committee, took issue with Wrigley's objections, saying that when the final draft of the code was prepared the committee members were in agreement on the code's content.

"It was unanimous," McCarty said. "All of this you're saying is after the fact. I wish you had brought it up."

Board member Kevin Cromar spoke at length about his objections to the code. He said the provision prohibiting communication with staff violates a board member's free speech and free association rights. He also said that the criteria for removing a board member lacked due process and was not clearly defined and because school board members are publicly elected officials, they cannot be removed from office by a simple vote of their colleagues.

 "A board member is an elected official," he said. "Frankly, (the provision) is illegal. The board has no authority to remove another board member."

Last September, Cromar – who is not seeking re-election – was publicly censured for "conduct unbecoming," which included speaking individually with and interviewing district employees without being authorized by the board. He has repeatedly questioned the legality of that action and on Tuesday said he wanted to make sure in his last remaining weeks in office that the board didn't take any actions that would leave the district open to litigation.

Board member Kim Horiuchi said the purpose of the code was to make clear that the board acts as a united body. She said in the past individuals had acted on their own, undermining both the board and the administration of the district.

"We're operating as a board of seven people and not as individuals and I think that's where the problem is," she said. "If anything we need to strengthen the policy."

Prior to tabling the proposed code, Cowdell asked the board's legal counsel to examine the state statute in relation to the removal of elected officers. He said there was no need to rush a decision on a new code of ethics and added that he would feel more comfortable if the section on removal of officers was reworked and clarified.

Chad Iverson, a candidate for the Canyons School Board contacted the board Tuesday with his concerns about the code of ethics and also spoke during the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting. He said the majority of the code was a step in the right direction but that two provisions – communication with district employees and removal of officers – lacked clarity and were potentially troublesome.

"I think there needs to be more discussion," he said.

Iverson said he has attended other meetings where the code was discussed and that the same objections seem to have been raised by the same individuals. He said he didn't know for sure about the legality of the board removing its own members, but added that barring board members from communicating with district employees would hamper their ability to represent their constituents and evaluate the performance of district administrators. 

He said the Canyons School Board and the district leadership does not function the way it should.

"The superintendent should answer to the board and the board should answer to the public," he said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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