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O.C. Registrar's Act Deepens School Furor in Recall Drive

The Capistrano district is further troubled over the improper showing of names on petitions.

July 12, 2006|Jennifer Delson and Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writers

An affluent south Orange County school district consumed by a drive to recall all its trustees was swept into deeper controversy this week when a county official admitted that the registrar of voters office had improperly let two school officials view the names of people who signed the recall petitions.

The names, which are confidential by state law, included parents and teachers in the Capistrano Unified School District, a sprawling and academically distinguished district stretching from San Clemente to Mission Viejo.

The action approved by Registrar Neal Kelley "did not comply" with the state code, said Leon Page, deputy county counsel. Kelley was unavailable for comment.

Parents who organized the recall drive against the seven trustees said the registrar's action called into question the integrity of his office. They also have been incensed by allegations that school district officials kept lists of the names of parents who supported the recall.

Yet Orange County Superior Court Judge Michael Brenner was apparently unmoved by plaintiff arguments of questionable integrity in the registrar's office. On Tuesday he threw out a lawsuit alleging that the registrar wrongfully invalidated 35% of the 250,000 signatures collected for the recall, which, without them, will not qualify for the ballot. In many cases, the judge said, signers did not write their own addresses, a violation of state law.

Recall organizer Rebecca Bauer said the addresses were added by organizers to save signers time and that the method was approved by registrar employees, who were repeatedly called for advice. "We did that to make sure these petitions would not be tossed out," she said.

School board President Marlene Draper said she was pleased with the court decision. "The judge dismissing this," she said, "is a major step for us to get back on track and allow us to focus on education."

The voter registrar's admission that two district employees had spent up to an hour reviewing petition signatures in violation of state law reignited emotions in a district that has been in turmoil for months.

Additionally, parents said they were angered and astonished that the district reportedly kept a spreadsheet with the names of 150 people who backed the recall effort. Although the superintendent has denied any knowledge of the spreadsheet, the district's former spokesman said he saw it and was asked to keep it secret.

Recall organizer Kevin Murphy called the alleged list "Nixonish." He said parents who sought it through a public document request were denied access.

Former district spokesman David Smollar, who resigned in late May, said Supt. James A. Fleming ordered him to withhold three versions of a spreadsheet list containing the names of parents, their e-mail addresses and the schools their children attend.

"I told him if anyone found out about the list, it would be an absolute embarrassment," Smollar said. "Fleming ordered me not to give it out [and] I complied. I didn't have a death wish to be fired."

He said he was also asked to block a public records request for a memo by the district security director on talks with an informant who had infiltrated the recall campaign. The superintendent "was more upset about releasing that than the spreadsheet list," Smollar said. "His mindset is to get all the background, all the ammo you can on people. He's a street fighter."

Fleming and Draper denied the allegations. They said they hadn't seen any database until a reporter faxed it to them and scoffed at the idea that they would collect parents' names.

"We have the names of every child and parent in the district," Draper said." If we wanted to make a database, we would not do it with 150 names. It would be much bigger."

The only list he ever saw, Fleming said, was a handwritten one bearing two dozen names that he said Smollar had gotten from the petitions at the registrar's office.

"I told him it was improper to be collecting that information," the superintendent said, adding that he immediately gave the list back.

Smollar said Fleming had asked him to go to the registrar's office in the first place, to "take notes of interest."

"Fleming took the sheet, smiled and placed it in his to-discuss-with-trustees box," Smollar said.

Fleming said Smollar was asked to resign in June. But Smollar said he submitted his resignation May 23 and left the job June 2.

"I quit because I didn't believe I was being told the truth as a spokesperson by the superintendent," he said. "I was tired of continual lies he told to me that I passed to the public."

The allegation of the lists, the registrar's wrongdoing and the judge's decision reflect nearly two years of controversy in a 55,000-student district with impressive test scores, including average SATs of 1115 out of a possible 1600.

"There is nothing sinister happening here," Fleming said. "This district is a model of efficiency."

Recall organizers disagree. "We have classrooms that are falling apart," said Kimberly Davey, a parent who helped launch the $40,000 recall effort in 2005.

Added recall supporter Mark Nielsen of San Juan Capistrano: "You have people moving into million-dollar-plus homes and you have a school with old portables and ratty carpeting."

Recall organizers say they plan a slate of three candidates to challenge school board incumbents in November.

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