ST. CHARLES – An ethics advisor has ruled that St. Charles School District 303 Board President Kathleen Hewell committed an unintentional minor violation of the board's ethics and gift ban when she obtained signatures from fellow school board members on her election nominating petition following a school board meeting.
"President Hewell's circulation of her own nominating petition constituted a prohibited political activity," attorney Stan Eisenhammer wrote as part of his investigation into the matter. "Although it did not occur during 'compensated time' (the board meeting had ended), it did occur on school property (the District's Administration Center.) Therefore, this activity violated board."
In January, St. Charles School Superintendent Jason Pearson received letters from residents Danielle Penman and Michelle Casile alleging violations of the school board's ethics and gift ban and asked that an ethics advisor be appointed to investigate the matter. They alleged that Hewell, who is seeking re-election, got fellow board members Lori Linkimer, Heidi Fairgrieve, Ed McNally, Scott Nowling and Nick Manheim to sign a petition for her at a board meeting on district property.
They also alleged that Hewell circulated a petition sheet for Manheim – the board's vice-president – who is also running for re-election. Pearson then appointed Eisenhammer as an ethics advisor to investigate the matter. Eisenhammer is from the firm Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn LLP, which represents the school district in legal matters.
Although Hewell violated the board's ethics and gift ban, Eisenhammer said the violation was "unintentional."
"There is no evidence of undue influence by Board President Hewell to obtain signatures," he wrote. "Nor did Hewell make a promise of any benefit. Rather, each board members' decision to sign her petition for nomination was voluntary."
Eisenhammer also said the fact that Linkimer, Fairgrieve, McNally, Nowling and Manheim signed her petition did not constitute political activities under the board policy and ethics act because they did not initiate, prepare, review or file any petition on behalf of any candidate for elective office. In addition, he said the decision to collect signatures at the conclusion of the board meeting "was purely out of convenience, in that a majority of board members were all in the same location due to the earlier board meeting."
"The board members could have easily walked out of the building, stood on the sidewalk in front of the building and signed the petition," he said. "In that case, there would have been no violation of the policy."
Eisenhammer also said the board's policy prohibition against a board member circulating a nominating petition on school property may be unconstitutional "as it violates both the First Amendment's free speech clause and the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause."
He noted the policy does not prohibit non-board candidates from circulating petitions on school property (at least on school property open to the public). Regarding Hewell's decision to circulate Manheim's petition for nomination to obtain signatures on his behalf from her neighbors on Wing Lane in St. Charles, Eisenhammer said her actions did not violate board policy because it did not occur during compensated time or on district property.
In his report, Eisenhammer recommended that board members be required to review the ethics and gift ban policy policy and that training be done every two years to ensure violations do not occur.
Hewell said the violation was unintentional on her part.
"The board strives hard to follow every rule and policy and I regret very much that my minor unintentional action has cast a negative light on an outstanding, productive board and distracted from the important work of the board," she said.
Penman said she was satisfied with Eisenhammer's ruling.
"Accountability is the key factor as to why I requested an ethics advisor," she said. "I hope that Mrs. Hewell and Mr. Manheim thoroughly read the board manual should they be re-elected," she said. "I also feel they owe the D303 community a public apology for the violations they committed."