by Steve Dorman, Jeffco Resident
The question has been floating through Jeffco for the last month: Why all the attorney changes? The new school board hired an attorney that reports to the board.
Now some would have you believe such a move has never happened before. Quite the contrary, the board has had an attorney for a long time. But because the hiring took place behind closed doors, very few knew or paid attention. The previous board contracted with Halpern Meacham. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the firm was instrumental in bringing the Lobato lawsuit, which sought to increase funding for public education in Colorado by billions.
Most of the people complaining about the lack of transparency worked on the political campaigns of the losing school board candidates. Transparency may not be the floor on which they wish to dance. The level of transparency displayed by the previous board was reminiscent of a different era in government when not much was done in public.
Not only did the previous board hire their attorney behind closed doors, but they also allowed many professional services contracts to be given to friends without any public process; for example, the more than $100,000 the district has paid Marilyn Saltzman since Nov. 2012. In addition to serving as a contractor to the district, Ms. Saltzman is listed as an associate in the company School House Communications. So is Nada Guinta, also paid thousands by the district. The owner of School House Communications is none other than the past board president and current board member, Lesley Dahlkemper.
Board policy mandates disclosure of such conflicts of interest. Further, state law requires elected officials to register potential conflicts of interest with the Secretary of State, and to make them known to the public. In fact, Colorado Revised Statute 18-8-308 makes failure to provide such disclosures a class 2 misdemeanor.
Dahlkemper must not have read that statute before she voted to award contracts to Saunders Construction without a bidding process, and failed to register that a Saunders Executive contributed to her school board campaign in 2011. On Feb. 7, 2013, her vote gave Saunders a contract worth $3.6 million despite the fact there had been no bidding process for the project. These aren’t the only incidents, and these aren’t the only stories like this.
Dahlkemper ought to be very familiar with conflicts of interest, as she was in the middle of a similar concern in 1997. Then she worked as a reporter for Colorado Public Radio, KCFR. Mike Feeley, who was engaged to marry Dahlkemper, announced he might consider a run for governor. A conflict of interest dispute ensued, resulting in Dahlkemper’s resignation as a reporter. The case is so interesting it rates discussion in the book Journalism Ethics: A casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media. (If you want to cast stones, make sure you’re not living in glass houses.)
The next time you hear complaints against the new board concerning transparency, you may wish to consider it in context.