Whenever the ethical question arises of where to draw the line on campaign fund-raising between what is acceptable and what is questionable or improper, politicians too often get defensive and place the line far from where it ought to be. That’s the case with some trustees in the Santa Ana Unified School District who would have us believe that it’s perfectly proper to sit as a selection committee on school construction projects, ask architects to bid on those projects and then promptly ask them for campaign contributions.
School board member Nativo V. Lopez, who collected most of the funds given by architects bidding for up to $ 350 million in construction contracts, defended the heavy-handed solicitations, claiming that politicians across the county, state and nation do the same. While local officials may accept campaign contributions from parties that eventually may have business before their boards, the connection between the bids and contributions that took place for the school board election last November seems especially direct and troublesome. In addition to Lopez, board member John Palacio collected thousands of dollars from architects, and trustees Nadia Maria Davis and Audrey Yamagata-Noji each received one somewhat smaller contribution from a bidding architect.
Lopez contends the bid process was unrelated to the fund-raising for his school board campaign. But even though the solicitation process falls within the legal letter of the law, the practice cries out for more controls. Trustee Rosemarie Avila applied the right standard herself by deliberately avoiding solicitation of architect donations.
In some jurisdictions, governing groups have placed legal controls on themselves. In the Santa Ana trustees’ own city, for instance, City Council members are forbidden from voting on any matter involving someone who contributed $ 250 or more to the officeholder within 12 months of a vote on their city business.
The school board issue hit the public spotlight when two architects, who had been solicited for campaign funds by board members, complained to the district and rightfully questioned the propriety of being asked to donate money at the same time they were involved in the bidding process on the new school construction projects.
Of the 15 companies selected by board members for school modernization or new construction contracts, 10 donated money to at least one board member, according to district records. While some architects didn’t want to discuss the issue publicly lest they anger board members and jeopardize the chance for future contracts, eight architects have said they resented the requests for campaign donations.
And an architect who received a solicitation from Lopez shortly after receiving a district request to resubmit a bid proposal said “. . . it just seems inappropriate to mix those two at the same time.” He and his firm didn’t respond to the request for funds–and were not selected for any jobs.
A coincidence? Unrelated? Whatever the case, the campaign contribution requests coming at the same time as the bidding process is at least bad timing and certainly reflects poor judgment. It raises the public’s suspicions of arm-twisting and conflicts of interest. And it erodes people’s confidence in their elected officials and public institutions.
The other disturbing aspect of the bidding-campaigning soliciting situation is the school board setting itself up both as the bid-screening body and as awarding arm of the process.
Why not let the district staff, which has more technical expertise and no obvious potential conflict of interest, screen the bids and submit a list of the most qualified and financially best to the board for its final decision? That makes more sense, politically and procedurally.
It also makes more sense–and would be better government–if trustees adopted an ethics policy banning soliciting funds from bidders. Avila last October urged the board to take that action, but her fellow trustees turned a deaf ear to that approach.
In light of the recent disclosures, Avila should reintroduce her ethics proposal. If, as Lopez contends, the bid process and political fund-raising are unrelated, school trustees should have no objections to a policy that keeps them separate, and also sends a message to bidders and the public that contracts will be awarded solely on merit.