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School Board member cleared in claim of campaign infraction

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Federal Way School Board member Evelyn Castellar has been cleared of an allegation that she campaigned improperly for a charter school referendum before last November’s general election.

In a two-page letter to Shari Cotes, a citizen who filed the complaint, the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) dismissed the complaint because “it does not appear that Ms. Castellar intended to deny the public an opportunity to present comments opposing” Referendum 55, a charter schools proposal in last year’s election.

The PDC added that Casteller will be “cautioned” to not make comments at board meetings in the future for or against ballot measures.

Vicki Rippie, executive director of the PDC, signed the letter.

The commission gets about four or five complaints a year directed at school boards or board members, said Doug Ellis, the agency’s spokesman in Olympia. Most are about local elected officials using public facilities, computers or internal mail systems to disseminate information about an election campaign, he said.

Temptation is the problem. The issue stirs emotions and a person sees the government equipment as an easy way to get their word out.

The PDC has guidelines for local elected officials, based on state law, defining what they can and can’t do as elected officers and politicking.

Generally, if what an elected official is doing uses tax dollars, public property or is on the public agency’s clock, it should be informational only and fair and objective.

That doesn’t mean an elected official puts their opinion and political campaigning for an issue into hibernation. According to Ellis, elected officials can express their opinion on an issue or a candidate, wave signs and use their title if it’s done on their own time and they are not paid for it.

Boards and councils can cast their support for or against an election issue as long as the law is followed, said Ellis and Dan Steele, an official with the Washington School Directors Association, an organization for school boards.

The association does some training on how board members can be politically active and what their rights are, but it’s usually part of an orientation session, Steele said.

Boards and school district superintendents call almost annually for advice, he added. The association either explains the law or refers them to the PDC.

It can be confusing, and Ellis said the public and elected officials don’t always understand the parameters. The PDC has an ongoing campaign to educate organizations like the Association of Washington Cities about the rights and limits of elected officials, he said.

On Tuesday, Casteller said she was “exonerated” and knew she had done nothing wrong. The caution from the state agency was “fair,” she said.

Cotes, a Federal Way resident who has been critical of Castellar and some other board members, said she was satisfied with the outcome.

Castellar could have been fined if the PDC thought she’d committed a punishable offense.

She didn’t want Castellar to get a fine, Cotes said, because board members don’t get paid a lot for holding the office. They are paid $50 per day for attending board meetings and events related to the board. They can’t be paid more than $4,800 per year, according to district policies.

The complaint against Castellar stemmed from a Sept. 14, 2004 board meeting, when she noted the board had passed a resolution in 2003 supporting charter schools legislation and expressed her support for Referendum 55.

Before Castellar made her comments at the meeting, Federal Way Education Association (local teachers union) president Shannon Rasmussen spoke against the referendum.

Washington voters rejected R-55 in November. The referendum would have allowed a select number of charter schools to open in the state.

When news of the complaint surfaced last year, Castellar defended herself, saying she had followed the guidance of then-board president Ed Barney and was within the bounds of the law.

The state law referenced by the PDC –– RCW 42.17.130 –– doesn’t allow elected officials to use their public office or agency to promote or oppose candidates or ballot propositions. However, it does allow “members of an elected legislative body” to comment on or support or oppose a ballot proposition if notice is given that it will be on the meeting agenda and those against the measure have “an approximately equal opportunity for the expression of an opposing view.”

“It may not have been exactly the correct process to bring that issue up,” Ellis said, but the commission determined there wasn’t “overt action to circumvent the law.”

Before the general election, the School Board passed a second resolution supporting Referendum 55.

Castellar maintains her support of charter schools. People against them, “in my opinion, are against better schools,” she said.

Cotes said she doesn’t want board members campaigning at their meetings. “I don’t have any hard feelings” toward Castellar, she added.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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