Billerica Schools’ Field-plan Email Violated State Law

January 10, 2018 GMT

BILLERICA -- The School Department violated state law by using public resources on a field maintenance ballot question last month, according to the Office of Campaign & Political Finance.

The department used its server and email list to send information about the ballot question to parents of Billerica students. State law does not allow use of taxpayer-paid resources, directly or indirectly, on any political issue.

School Superintendent Tim Piwowar and the school system were not fined for the violation.

On Dec. 19, OCPF Director Michael Sullivan wrote that the School Department used limited resources for this email, and recognized Piwowar’s “prompt acknowledgment of the error and our belief that the guidance provided as the result of this review will ensure future compliance with the campaign finance law... this office now considers this matter closed.”

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Piwowar thanked OCPF for its “prompt attention to the complaint that was raised, and for their support and guidance regarding our letter about the Dec. 2 election.”

“Although I wrote, and the School Committee approved, the letter with the intent of being informational and factual, we discovered after speaking with OCPF that our distribution of this letter via email was a technical violation of their regulations,” Piwowar stated. “We apologize for this error, but are happy that this case is considered closed and commit to ensuring compliance in the future.”

In Piwowar’s conversation with OCPF, the agency indicated that the School Department did not commit a violation by distributing its letter through the school website or social media platforms.

Using public resources for political purposes can also raise issues under the conflict-of-interest, which is administered by the state Ethics Commission, Sullivan said in the Dec. 19 letter.

In late November, the School Committee voted unanimously to distribute information to residents about the Dec. 2 election regarding $130,000 for field maintenance and other budget items.

“The Billerica School Committee has asked me to provide information to the parent, guardian, and greater Billerica community to help ensure that citizens are appropriately informed about the Dec. 2 election,” Piwowar wrote in the Nov. 27 email.

In that email, Piwowar mentioned how he wrote a similar document in 2015 to address the high school project, titling one of the sections, “Importance of Factual Information.”

“Within that section, I wrote that ‘if misinformation is spread in the community, it should be addressed as soon as possible.’ Please allow this memo to serve a similar purpose as it relates to the Dec. 2 election,” Piwowar wrote.

In the email, Piwowar explained the budget amendment, and what a “Yes” or “No” vote would mean for the town. He also addressed whether this type of budget amendment was ordinary, and that the School Committee passed a resolution in support of the budget article.

Piwowar included links to the town website for more information on the plan’s specifics.

A few weeks ago, Piwowar briefed School Committee Chairman Jim Gately about the violation.

“Obviously, we want to do things the right way,” Gately said. “It’s unfortunate this minor violation happened, but we’re glad they made us aware of it so we avoid any conflicts in the future.”

Gately said he never thought this email would violate state law.

After Piwowar told Gately about the violation, the chairman did not contact the four other School Committee members about it. Piwowar said they wanted to wait until the next meeting to share the letter with the School Committee members in person.

School Committee member Darlene Torre said early Tuesday afternoon she was unaware of the OCPF letter and violation. Later in the afternoon, she had been briefed on it.

In the wake of this, she criticized Piwowar, citing his “lack of communication.”

“He didn’t think to mention this to any of us?” Torre said. “That letter was from Dec. 19th. Today is Jan. 9.”

She said she was disappointed the violation happened, and is disturbed the legal department didn’t catch this violation before sending the email to parents across town.

“I will do my due diligence to make sure nothing like this happens again,” Torre said. “Not on my watch.”

School Committee member Katie Mahoney also said she was unaware of the violation early Tuesday afternoon.

She said the board simply distributed factual information to the residents ahead of the election.

“The more information you give to residents, the more educated they are,” Mahoney said. “It never hurts to give them more information.”

In 1978, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the City of Boston could not appropriate money, or use money previously appropriated for other purposes, to influence a ballot question.

As a result, OCPF ruled that governmental entities cannot spend public resources to influence or affect the outcome of a ballot question, even if the information is intended to be objective and factual.

The “Yes” side prevailed in the Dec. 2 Billerica special election by a 2,631-2,312 margin. Technically, the election did not count because there was less than 20 percent voter turnout. Thus, Town Meeting’s approval of the funding article stands.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.