University Place school board candidate emails likely not campaign violation, PDC says

Emails sent to University Place teachers this week by a school board candidate seeking re-election may have been a bad idea, but they probably don’t violate campaign laws, a spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission said Thursday.

Annie Fitzsimmons, an incumbent candidate for University Place School Board, drew the attention of her board colleagues after she sent emails to teachers criticizing board conduct and asking teachers to support her candidacy.

The messages were sent Monday and Tuesday to teachers at their school email addresses. Board members Wednesday night asked their attorney to consult with the PDC about whether Fitzsimmons’ action violated campaign laws that prohibit the use of public facilities to assist a political campaign.

Asked that question Thursday by The News Tribune, the PDC’s Lori Anderson said that if Fitzsimmons used her own computer and email account to send emails to addresses that are available to the public on the school district website, that’s not a violation. Anderson said that if Fitzsimmons had used an internal, “proprietary” email list, that would violate campaign rules.

William Coats, the school district attorney, told the board at a Wednesday meeting that he believes Fitzsimmons’ message violates both state campaign rules and the district’s own policies that say district email is for educational purposes.

Fitzsimmons, who is seeking a second four-year term on the board, criticized the school board in the email for “abdication of its responsibility” in favor of Superintendent Patti Banks. “Centralization of power in a single decision maker ... is not healthy for any organization,” Fitzsimmons’ email states.

She says she sent the message to correct misinformation circulating about her positions, including information printed in a teachers union newsletter.

Fitzsimmons is running against Rick Maloney, who has been a member of the board since 1995. Fitzsimmons currently holds Position 3 on the school board, but switched to run against Maloney for Position 5. Newcomer T’wina Franklin is running unopposed for Position 3.

Maloney called the flap over Fitzsimmons’ emails “unfortunate.”

At the meeting Wednesday night, Fitzsimmons defended her actions.

“I sat at my house and pulled publicly available email addresses from the (district) public website, and I plugged them into the ‘CC’ line on my email,” Fitzsimmons said. “I’m not convinced I did anything wrong.”

Banks said she was informed about Fitzsimmons’ email by a staff member at Sunset Primary School. Banks contacted Coats and the district’s information technology department, who informed her that Fitzsimmons’ message was also being sent to another school, University Place Primary. Banks said Coats advised her to block the message from further distribution.

State campaign law says that elected officials may not use “any of the facilities of a public office or agency” to campaign. The law states that facilities include, but are not limited to, “stationery, postage, machines, equipment” and other resources. Coats said that using teachers’ school email addresses for a campaign statement was the equivalent of stuffing campaign fliers in their school mailboxes — an action clearly prohibited by law.

Guidelines from the PDC state school district email systems can’t be used to generate or forward information that supports a candidate or ballot measure.

Fitzsimmons believes — and the PDC spokeswoman appeared to confirm — that her message is legal because she used her own email account to generate it. She said she was “trying to communicate with my constituents who received false information about me.”

She pointed to an email sent by University Place Education Association president Nancy Johnson to union representatives at district schools, known as building reps. It included a link to a Sept. 16 News Tribune editorial endorsing Maloney, who was also endorsed by the union.

Johnson’s email asked building reps to forward the link to their members, and said the editorial was “an extremely important article for them to read.”

Johnson acknowledged in an interview that she sent the link to building reps at their district email addresses. But she considered it an informational message, not a campaign message.

“It was out there for people to read,” Johnson said of the editorial. “I didn’t create anything.”

On Wednesday, after hearing from union members who were “confused and disturbed” about Fitzsimmons’ email, Johnson emailed a reminder to building reps that “any e-mail that is political in nature should not be sent on district e-mail.”

Fitzsimmons argued that if her email is subject to PDC sanction, then Johnson’s should be too. The PDC’s Anderson said that the issue hinges on where Johnson’s message originated, and whether she used a proprietary, internal email address list to send it.

“If she was sitting at home and did the same thing (Fitzsimmons) did, that is not good judgment, but it’s not a violation,” Anderson said.

Kirk Wald, a supporter of Fitzsimmons who said he’s also voted for her opponent Maloney in the past, said Thursday that he sent a message to the PDC questioning the union’s use of the district email system.

“It looks like some education is in order so that we have a level playing field,” Wald said.