A Lincoln County Board of Education member is set to face voters on Election Day while still under the threat of censure from fellow board members.
Following allegations that board member Tommy Houser improperly used school employee personnel records for a campaign mailing, the board met in special session Thursday evening and unanimously agreed to begin a censure procedure.
Because Houser was not present for the meeting, he was unable to address the allegations.
With board member Kelly Childers also absent, the remaining five board members unanimously agreed to have board attorney David Black draft a letter to Houser advising him that he is being considered for censure and will have the right to respond to the accusations at the next regular board meeting, on Nov. 14.
Because that’s eight days after the Nov. 6 general election, voters will have to decide between Houser and two challengers, Cathy Davis and Nolan Nance, before the matter is resolved. The censure vote could end up being one of the last actions for several board members since Childers and George Dellinger are not seeking another term, while Houser faces his two opponents and board chairman Ed Hatley faces Anita McCall on election day. However the new board won’t be sworn in until the December meeting.
Houser has previously told the Times-News that didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong because board members have access to the employee address list in question.
But at Thursday’s meeting, Black advised the board that use of private records by a campaign appears to violate a school district policy, and constitute an important conflict of interest, making it grounds for censure, a vote by the board to condemn action by another board member.
Black noted that improperly accessing school employee address records is a violation of state statutes. The Times-News has previously reported such a breach is deemed a crime – a misdemeanor – under state law.
However, Black noted that a separate statute does grant board members access to those records, so that Houser’s use of them would be appear to be a mere policy violation, rather than a crime.
Even so, questions remain unanswered about whether anyone else could face prosecution for assisting his campaign in accessing the computerized records, printing mailing labels and printing the letters.
There could also be additional questions about the legality of Houser’s actions, since the law gives him access to the private records, but may not allow him to have shared them with anyone else assisting his campaign.
During Thursday’s session, board members emphasized both the seriousness of the situation and the importance of unity and objectivity.
“Let me alert and remind the board, that it is not our purpose nor our intention to conduct a “witch hunt” relating to this issue,” board member Bob Silver said prior to Thursday’s decision.
“It is however to make sure that if a violation has been committed, that it’s been identified, addressed and remedied properly, fairly, and expeditiously.
“It’s the board’s responsibility to maintain honesty, integrity, and transparency regarding our behavior and professionalism of our positions. It is imperative that we police our efforts; upholding our accountability to the voters of Lincoln County and conduct ourselves in a responsible fashion.”
After the vote, board member Clayton Mullis expressed additional concerns about unethical activity during campaign season. Mullis said that as chairman of the board’s policy committee, he’d like to see current policies strengthened, including stronger restrictions against candidates campaigning on school grounds.
An unresolved issue stemming from Houser’s campaign letters to all school employees is that it potentially gave him an unfair advantage over his two opponents. However, the Times-News has learned that supporters of at least one of those candidates are working on a remedy.
Because the list of school employees is public information and only their home addresses is private, it would be perfectly legal for a candidate to mail letters to them at the schools, which would then be required to distribute the letters.
The Times-News has also learned that those backing Houser’s opponents may be considering a formal complaint with criminal authorities and believe the improper breach of employee privacy could constitute a federal as well as a state crime.