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White Pine officials discuss electioneering allegations; acknowledge possible open meeting law violation

Education

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Courtesy White Pine Charter School Facebook page

IDAHO FALLS — A local charter school is taking steps to correct how an investigation into its board election was handled earlier this year.

On Monday, the White Pine Charter School Board of Directors acknowledged it might have violated the Idaho Open Meeting Law behind closed doors May 30. During the May meeting, the board addressed a complaint that one of its directors, Joanna Stark, had been involved in electioneering or attempting to sway voters toward a specific candidate during a Board of Directors’ election earlier that month.

During that executive session, the board also moved forward with a plan to hire an attorney to investigate concerns about how the election was conducted.

In a letter submitted to the board the day after the executive session, Stark says that discussion about the election and the decision to launch an investigation was a breach of the Idaho Open Meeting Law and of the charter school bylaws.

During Monday’s board meeting, Chairman Adam Frugoli said although he doesn’t personally believe any laws were violated, he felt the need to take a corrective action just in case.

“I don’t acknowledge that there was an open meeting violation, but there could be,” Frugoli said.

He said if the law was broken, it wasn’t intentional, and he doesn’t want to drag out the issue. Frugoli said he’s committed to ensuring the board becomes better informed about public meeting laws in the future.

The public acknowledgment is one of the first steps in moving forward following months of infighting between board members regarding the May election.

Why the election was controversial

White Pine Charter School holds board elections annually, and this year, Stark was placed in charge of a committee to oversee the election. Her job was to accept applications from candidates, approve their qualifications and decide who would have the opportunity to run. She chose six people, including three incumbents.

The election was to be conducted using a combination of physical and digital ballots. The digital ballots would be submitted using a Google Form.

A problem arose on the first day of voting when two incumbent board members, Tony Lima and Jakob Miller, discovered it was possible for anyone to vote, and voters could cast multiple ballots. Stark was informed, it was determined a preference in the form had not been checked, and it was corrected.

The election ended with Amber Beck, Emmalee Robinson, and incumbent Jim Seamans winning the race by a significant margin. Both Lima and Miller lost their positions on the board.

Following the election, Miller told the board in an email that the technical issues hurt the validity of the election.

“As part of my duty to the school as a board member, and as a cybersecurity professional I feel that I must point out AGAIN that the results of the election have no integrity because of the technological manner in which voting occurred. The way the online voting process occurred was not secure and allowed for ANY individual to vote as many times as they wished. I spoke to Joanna and others on the board about this as soon as I discovered the security vulnerability. These conversations occurred BEFORE “official” results had been counted. Not only do we need to have accurate data around our school board elections, but we have a legal obligation to the state of Idaho to address the issue of an invalid election,” Miller wrote.

After the election, the board also received a letter from a teacher, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. The teacher claimed school administrator Devan Tyler and Stark were suggesting to teachers that they vote for candidate Emmalee Robinson. The teacher also brought up concerns about how the votes were being verified and monitored.

The letter was enough for Lima, who was chairman at the time, to seek legal advice from two lawyers regarding the allegations against Stark.

“I sought legal advice … to determine if she had violated state law or board policy,” Lima said in an email to EastIdahoNews.com. “Based on their advice, I felt the Board should be made aware of these allegations as her actions may have jeopardized both the validity of the election and the trust of the community. In my opinion, Stark‚Äôs alleged campaigning on school property and during the election week constituted unethical conduct and abuse of her power as the governance chair. To be clear, if Stark had done this during an election in (Idaho Falls School) District 91 or (Bonneville Joint School) District 93, then it most likely would be considered unlawful electioneering. The White Pine community deserves to have a fair and impartial election.”

Lima told the board he believed an investigation should occur, and Frugoli, who was treasurer at the time, offered to find an attorney.

After learning about the allegations, Stark denied being involved in any electioneering.

In a letter Stark sent to the board, she said she had “never told anyone how to vote, who to vote for, and did not in any cognizant way try to persuade, influence or alter the ballots, votes or results in any way, shape or form.”

“I do not personally know (Emmalee), but through her letter of intent and resume, the governance committee deemed her a valuable candidate for the school board. I do not know anything else about her to have advocated, ‘electioneered,’ or interfered with the school board election in any way. ‘I think he/she will be a (great) addition to the board.’ This is the same generic statement that I used in discussing and describing all candidates who were up for election,” she wrote.

Possible open meeting law violation

Frugoli decided to spend $5,000 of school money to hire local attorney Doug Nelson to investigate the election. The decision was announced during an executive session, which sparked concerns about an open meeting violation.

The Idaho Open Meeting Law requires boards make decisions regarding policies or actions in open meetings. Typically this is done with a vote. In this case, the decision to spend money to hire Nelson was not voted on in either executive session or in a public meeting. The matter was just discussed and then decided upon, according to Frugoli.

A section of the open meeting law states if an action is made during an executive session in violation of the law, that the action — in this case, the investigation into the election — could be declared null and void by a court. But that can only happen if a county prosecutor pursues the case and decides a violation has occurred.

That hasn’t happened in this case.

Bonneville County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bryan Lovell confirmed a complaint was made to law enforcement about the alleged violation. However, Lovell said the investigation won’t proceed further now that the board has taken steps to acknowledge the possible violation.

“It doesn’t appear there was a criminal violation, and the board is already taking steps to correct it,” Lovell said. “There doesn’t appear to be anything to send to the prosecutor.”

Results of the election investigation

During Nelson’s investigation of the alleged electioneering, he spoke with several witnesses who backed up the claims of the anonymous teacher.

“In particular, three of the witnesses have attested that Joanna’s statements appeared clearly intended to solicit votes for Emmalee Robinson and/or Amber Beck. The statements of Joanna were not received by the witnesses as simple confirmation of the qualifications of a particular candidate,” Nelson wrote in his report.

But, Nelson also “found no conclusive evidence that unlawful electioneering occurred” at White Pine Charter School.

He said the school operates under the Idaho Nonprofit Corporations Act, which allows the school’s elections to be governed by its own bylaws, rather than by the criminal statute in Idaho Code. School bylaws don’t prohibit board members or administrators from advocating on behalf of a candidate.

Nelson told EastIdahoNews.com his report found no legal wrongdoing by anyone involved with the election. However, he did outline a number of problems he saw with the election, including:

  • There was no comprehensive list of stakeholders who were eligible to vote in the election.
  • There was no log of who was voting or casting ballots.
  • The online ballots had no safeguards in place to prevent repeated voting, or verify a voter’s eligibility to vote.
  • The paper ballots had been spoiled after milk was spilled on them, and the ballots were thrown away.

Nelson recommended a revision of election policies, and even holding a new election.

In total, the cost of the investigation, including fulfilling public information requests, cost the district about $10,877, according to IdahoEdNews.org.

Following the investigation, the school’s attorney, Bret Walther, recommended the board set aside the May election entirely. He said the board might have trouble during an audit if it was unable to validate the election of its board.

On June 28, the board publicly overturned the election results, negating the wins of Beck, Robinson and Seamans.

“To protect the integrity of the school moving forward, the board decided it was in their best interest to invalidate the election and restart the process with better procedures in place to ensure valid results,” Walther said.

It also removed the seats that had been involved in the election. The board then appointed Gina Stevenson to serve in order to reach the required number of directors to form a board.

The board plans to rework its election policies and plans to hold a new election for later this year.

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