A new rule from Sweetwater Union High School Superintendent Dr. Ed Brand that requires members of the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee to fill out conflict of interest forms has left some of them feeling intimidated and bullied.
They've also questioned his authority to do so.
In an Aug. 29 memo, Brand requested that all Prop. O Citizens’ Bond Oversight members fill out 700 forms, typically completed by elected officials to disclose personal financial information such as sources of income, and submit them by Sept. 30.
When he only received one, Brand followed up with another memo in early October to district school board members, advising them of his request, then requiring members to comply or face removal from the committee. He also extended the deadline until the end of the month.
In his Oct. 4 memo to the board he stated: “Ultimately, you and I will face criticism if we have members that are found to be involved with certain aspects of the community such as developers, and have not disclosed this to us upfront.”
Brand said his requirement would help eliminate potential conflicts of interest.
“The district’s had some controversy in the last couple years and when I came back about 15 months ago there was a lot of criticism about transparency and … about potential conflicts,” Brand said.
He called the requirement “a natural progression” to exercise caution and level the playing field.
“We have all the board members and administrators fill out the form,” Brand said. “At the end of the day it’s a $644 million taxpayers effort and we need to justify that there is no conflict on the recommendations or the decisions that are being made.”
In January, the district began requiring all coaches to fill out the same forms, citing a potential conflict of interest with vendors.
Brand maintains the requirement falls in line with state bond oversight committee best practices.
“…I think it just gives peace of mind to the public and peace of mind that we’re doing it the right way,” he said. “I fill out the form … everyone fills it out. I don’t think there’s anything that’s all that personal.”
California’s Fair Political Practices Commission spokeswoman Tara Stock said the general rule is that if a committee, board or commission has decision-making authority, its members are required to file statements of economic interests.
However, Stock said in an email Thursday, “Generally if a committee, board or commission is solely advisory, the members are not required to file Form 700s.”
Three-plus year committee member Bernardo Vasquez vehemently disagrees with Brand’s directive, saying they are not legally required to fill out 700 forms according to the education code.
“Four of six (committee members) agreed that we should adopt the standards in full, but two of us didn’t think we had to adopt it with the requirement of filling out the 700 form,” he said.
Vasquez said the push for full disclosure is very personal.
“For him to do this now that I’ve become a vocal committee member … I’m not (going to) let Ed Brand bully me,” he said.
Vasquez said he’d force the district to kick him off the committee before he signs the form.
“What they’re doing is wrong,” he said. “I’ve been on the committee during the heaviest spending of bond money, the firing of (former superintendent Jesus) Gandara, when the criminal indictments came down… At no time was my integrity or anything else questioned.”
For those who do not comply, Brand said he would replace them with others who would agree to the stipulation.
Brand maintains the request is for everyone’s protection.
“Making sure that the district’s interest is the community’s interest and most of all the children’s interest is job one,” Brand said.
Vasquez said he doesn’t trust giving the district his personal financial information.
“How ironic is it that within 30 days of us giving a vote of no confidence … this happens,” he said. “I absolutely feel like I’m being bullied. Ed brand did not earn my trust to give up private information.”
Last month, the committee took a vote of no confidence in Brand and has been vocal in criticizing his decisions, saying they are not in the best interest of the students.
“I’m not in position to spend any money,” Vasquez said. “All we do is oversee how money is spent and report back to the public. We can’t approve or decline anything.”
While committee member Kevin O’Neill currently has a 700 on file with the city, he said he doesn’t approve of the requirement.
“I’m not comfortable with the way this came about,” O’Neill said. “First and foremost under the FPPC, we’re not required to fill one out because of the position we fill, we don’t make decisions on money or anything else.”
O’Neill said requiring the committee members fill out conflict of interest forms is a double standard.
“Dr. Brand wants transparency from us and yet he sends the district a letter of resignation that sat somewhere for better of five weeks and the board doesn’t announce that the board doesn’t have a superintendent,” he said. “How does that happen?”