No violation: School board election investigation complete

September 2015 Posted in News

By Kristine Thomas

An investigation by the Oregon Secretary of State Election’s Division has found there is “insufficient evidence” that three Silver Falls School District employees violated election laws.

In April, Fred Vandecoevering filed a complaint with the Oregon Secretary of State Election’s Division about possible election violations by Eugene Field Elementary School Principal Jennifer Hannan, Eugene Field special needs assistant and then write-in school board candidate DaNette Wernette and Silver Falls Education Association President and teacher Marie Traeger.

Vandecoevering alleged Hannan, Traeger and Wernette may have “violated election law by supporting the candidacy of DaNette Wernette while on the job during work hours as public employees.” Wernette was the write-in candidate in the May school board election. She lost to Todd White for the Zone 6 seat.

Vandecoevering alleged the three employees violated election law in connection with an email and alleged activity at a staff meeting.

He had received an email from an anonymous source that Hannan sent her staff about a staff meeting. He believed the email exposed a meeting that took place during work hours to allow Wernette to speak at a staff meeting. He never revealed the source of the email.

Secretary of State Investigations and Legal Special Alana Cox wrote in the conclusion of an Aug. 17 letter to Vandecoevering, “Not finding a violation of election law, the Elections Division determines this investigation is closed and does not intend to pursue this matter further.”

Cox wrote the Elections Division received several emails and phone calls raising other issues related to possible political campaigning by public employees of the Silver Falls School District.

Stating complaints about violations of election law must be filed within 90 days of the incident or the election, those issues were too late to be considered, did not rise to the level of election law violations, or were not within the purview of the office.

“However, this complaint and those additional calls and emails do raise serious concerns about possible confusion about or issues related to political campaigning by public employees in the Silver Falls School District,” Cox wrote.

“This office takes its responsibility to administer and enforce the election laws seriously.”

She cautioned Hannan, Wernette, Traeger and Silver Falls Superintendent Andy Bellando, who all received copies of the letter, “that fidelity to election law is an important responsibility for public employees. Our office is available to answer questions and address any concerns that may arise, and I encourage the district to err on the side of caution going forward to ensure compliance with the election laws.”

Bellando said he is pleased with the Secretary of State’s determination on the election complaint.

“The results of the investigation are not a surprise because I believe we have always been careful to honor and abide by election laws,” Bellando said. “We take our responsibility as public employees seriously and we are continuously working to educate ourselves, and our staff members, to ensure that we stay current on election laws.”

Traeger said the accusations against her had no merit and at no time was she concerned she had violated any laws.

“But with that said,” she wrote, “my name was dragged through the mud on social medial and my children were affected and that was not OK and what bothered me the most.”

Vandecoevering said the state has a system of checks and balances that allow all citizens to have their  grievances be heard and assured that fair analysis can be made of the issues of the day.

“In this case, there was probable cause that employees may have been taking advantage of the system. In the due diligence of the Secretary of State’s office, by the evidence they were able to retrieve, they decided that not enough direct evidence was available to present citations against anyone named in my complaint,”  Vandecoevering  said. “That being said, Ms. Cox did caution that people in the district need to be aware that there are lines that cannot be crossed. So was it a complete vindication of all involved? Maybe not.”

Moving forward, Vandecoevering said he still believes there is much work to be done to build cooperation and trust within the district.

“That falls directly on Mr Bellando and the Board of Directors. I hope that for the sake of Silver Falls School District those charged with leading will do that.”

During her campaign for the school board, Wernette said a complaint filed with the election office by Vandecouvering cited second and third hand emails “which were taken quite out of context.”

“His complaint alleged that election law​s had been violated​ by me, Jennifer Hannan and ​Marie Traeger to gain ​me ​an unfair podium as a district employee,” Wernette said. ​“Specifically, he speculated that there had been political activities while on the clock and that I was to be allowed to speak about my candidacy when it would not have been appropriate to do so.”

Wernette said the assumptions were false and a product of pure speculation.

“The email which he cited was correspondence between Ms. Hannan and her staff, as well as a notification that I had authored to inform my boss (Ms. Hannan) that I was running a campaign that would affect my employer (the Silver Falls School District),” Wernette said.

She is disappointed public funds were used for a formal investigation that would not have been necessary if an attempt had been first made to clarify concerns with the directly involved parties.

“I, Ms. Hannan and Ms. Traeger were all easily accessible for questions from the public,” Wernette said.  “I would have been happy to speak with Mr. Vandecouvering about the events which were to actually transpire and about the email in question, which was solely founded on a professional employee-employer relationship.”

State Election Division letter specifics
In the Aug. 17 letter, Investigations and Legal Specialist Alana Cox wrote:

Marie Traeger

“Based on the evidence in the complaint and in response to our letter of inquiry, there is insufficient evidence that Marie Traeger violated  election law in this instance.”

DaNette Wernette

Based on the evidence in the complaint and in response to our letter of inquiry, there is insufficient evidence DaNette Wernette violated election law in this instance.”

Jennifer Hannan

“Based on the evidence in the complaint and in response to our letter of inquiry, there is insufficient evidence Jennifer Hannan violated election law by supporting a candidate while on the job in violation of ORS 260.432.

“Ms. Hannan explained the context for the email, and while the email is troubling, we are declining to issue a penalty in this instance.”

Cox said the email did raise some questions about political campaigning in the workplace.

“While it may not have been the intention of Ms. Hannan to advocate for a candidate, a person receiving that email could understand it to be an endorsement of a candidate or of candidates that support a particular position. “

Cox said it was inappropriate to include the candidacy email.

While Cox said she understands Hannan forwarded the email from DaNette Wernette as a way to provide her staff information, “forwarding the candidacy announcement email was not the best way to do this.”

Cox said Hannan could have advised staff to contact either the candidate or the union if they had questions. Cox understands the staff was concerned how the election could affect their workplace.

“It is not reasonable to expect total silence about how the board elections might affect the workplace. However, I advise use of additional caution in the future when addressing such issues.”

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