Is this a case of conflict of interest?
The cast: Manteca Unified Board of Trustee for Area 3 Michael Seelye; his wife Linda, a registered nurse.
The setting: Board of Trustees’ vote on new hires under the consent agenda.
The time: Three or four years ago.
The school district’s Health Services Department of Manteca Unified has an opening for a part-time registered nurse. The job pays about $20 an hour. Since it’s part-time, it does not include benefits.
After the new hire is selected, Linda Seelye’s name is included in a list of chosen new employees who have been approved for hiring by members of the district staff whose job is to screen the job applicants.
As is often the case, the list is submitted by school district staff to the board with the recommendation to approve. It is placed as a consent-agenda item, which means it doesn’t need any further discussion and the Trustees could vote on them as such in toto, or as a whole. However, the rule is that each of the Trustees can request to “pull” a consent item – or several items – if there are issues that they think should be further clarified. Once that is done, the Trustees then vote on those items.
Trustee Seelye voted on the consent item that included the hiring of his wife for the part-time job with no benefits.
The complaint/question from concerned individuals: Wasn’t that a conflict of interest on the part of Trustee Seelye since he is an elected public official?
Deputy Superintendent Clark Burke was extremely careful in giving an answer when asked that question. This is a “legal issue,” one that is a “board-governed issue,” so the district does not have the “authority to answer that,” he explained.
Trustee Seelye’s explanation:
Seelye said his wife was “approached” by Health Services Director Caroline Thibodeau about the job opening. Thibodeau knew his wife just retired from her job at the San Joaquin General Hospital, he said. She was a hospital review nurse and worked under another RN. She also worked for other doctors prior to that.
It was explained to his wife that the Health Services opening required only two days a week of work.
“You cannot find people to do that because no nurse is going to work for the 20-bucks-an hour” that the job offered, Seelye said.
He did vote in favor of that consent-agenda item and did not recuse himself. “It went through the board, as far as I know,” he said.
“I didn’t think it was a conflict of interest,” he added, and that the district did not think “that would be a problem.”
He also announced his wife plans to quit that job. “She’s not going to do it anymore; she’s going to stop this year anyway” because she wants to stay at home and take care of their first grandchild, he said.
What the law says about conflicts of interest for elected officials
“Conflict of interest is a difficult legal concept, requiring sensitivity and good judgment on the part of public officials,” according to a California Research Bureau in a survey conducted in 1998.
It also stated that “No elected or appointed public official shall engage in any business or transaction or shall have a financial or personal interest, direct or indirect, which is incompatible with the proper discharge of his/her official duties in the public interest, or which would tend to impair independence of judgment or action in the performance of his/her official duties. Personal, as distinguished from financial, interests shall include interests arising from blood or marriage relationships or close business associations.”
The same source, Survey of Local Ethics Ordinances, further stated: “California has approximately 7,000 (as of 1998) units of local government, including special districts, cities, counties and school districts, a significant number of whom have adopted ethics ordinances which contain provisions beyond those required of local authorities by the Political Reform Act. These local ordinances raise important democratic issues.”
The individuals who contacted the Bulletin said they have heard about this particular incident a few years ago but no one ever brought it up before the board. They are doing that now because they would like to get some answers, they said.
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