Trustee Works 400 Miles Away : College Official's Legal Residence Questioned

Times Staff Writer

For nearly three years, Charlie Mae Knight has been superintendent of an elementary school district about 400 miles north of here, in East Palo Alto. She owns a condominium there and lists the address on her driver's license.

During that time, Knight has also been an elected trustee of Compton Community College. She owns a house in nearby Lynwood, where she used to work as a school superintendent. And her husband and children still live there.

Knight likens her living situation to that of a state legislator who spends most of the week in Sacramento and comes home on weekends.

But some East Palo Alto city officials recently raised questions about just where Knight's legal residence--and political venue--is.

Last month, Knight's dual addresses became an issue when she applied for a seat on the East Palo Alto Planning Commission. On the application she wrote that she was a registered voter in that city, although only a week earlier she had cast her primary election ballot in Lynwood.

Election officials confirm that, at one point, Knight was registered to vote in both Lynwood and East Palo Alto, even though such a double registration is prohibited. And for a time, they say, she wasn't registered at all in her Compton college district.

East Palo Alto Councilwoman Barbara Mouton last week accused Knight of a "sleazy tactic" by trying to pass herself off as a legal resident of that city. Knight withdrew her Planning Commission application shortly after Mouton publicly questioned her residency status.

But Mouton said she doesn't understand why Knight has been allowed to keep her college trustee post when, for nearly a year, she was not registered to vote in the district she was elected to represent.

"I'm an elected official," Mouton said, "and if there's any way that I negate that residency then I'm out of office."

State law requires college trustees to live in their districts. And the city of East Palo Alto requires its planning commissioners to live there. But there is no residency requirement for the school superintendent's job.

Knight and her supporters blame the controversy on political opponents she has made in East Palo Alto while managing its largely low-income elementary school district.

Knight said last week that she didn't know East Palo Alto planning commissioners were required to be city residents. And while she acknowledged having switched her voter address back and forth between Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, she said she never intended to be registered in more than one place at a time.

"I only (applied for the East Palo Alto Planning Commission) because I thought it could help the city," Knight said. "If I had known this was going to expand as an expose (on) what city I was going to live in . . ." Knight left the sentence unfinished, and declined to elaborate.

'Bright, Creative Ideas'

East Palo Alto school board President R.B. Jones, one of Knight's biggest fans, said: "There is a group of about nine people who are gunning for her." Jones described Knight as a "courageous woman" who has brought "a lot of bright, creative ideas" to the city.

The Rev. James Davis, vice president of the school board, added: "I would go to the end of hell for her because I know the good she has done for this community."

As for Knight's standing to serve on the Compton college board, she said she has always considered her legal residence to be within her Lynwood district.

Compton college President Edison O. Jackson said this week that Knight's attendance record at meetings has been excellent, even though she has so far to travel from her East Palo Alto job. "She carries her responsibilities as a board member," he said.

Fellow Trustee James E. Carter concurred, adding, "She's very knowledgeable of board activities."

Given the facts, where is Knight's legal residence?

"The answer is," said state Deputy Atty. Gen. Eugene Hill, "to some degree in the eye of the beholder because residence is so much a matter of personal intent. . . . The key thing here is the intent of the officeholder."

Knight's constituents can always challenge her right to hold the college post, said Hill, who heads the government division. But they would have to convince a judge that she intended to establish her legal residence in East Palo Alto.

Intent Carries Weight

However, Hill noted that intent carries so much weight in such cases that a Fresno school trustee was recently allowed to keep his post even though he admitted to moving out of his district. The trustee, Hill said, was getting divorced and had moved into an apartment, not realizing at the time it was a block or two over the line.

Knight was first elected to the college board in 1983 while also working as superintendent of the Lynwood Unified School District. As a trustee, she receives about $4,800 a year. She left the Lynwood job in 1985, however, and two months later became superintendent of the Ravenswood Elementary School District in East Palo Alto, drawing a salary of about $65,000.

Maintaining then that her primary residence would remain in Lynwood, Knight said she could continue to serve as a college trustee by commuting to the twice-a-month board meetings.

In March, 1986, however, Knight said she registered to vote in East Palo Alto, believing that her husband and children would be moving there to join her.

Her San Mateo County voter form asked that she note her most recent prior registration so officials could automatically cancel it. Records show that Knight listed Lynwood as the prior address, so when Los Angeles County cancelled her registration, she was no longer a voter in the college district she represented.

While elected trustees are required to be district residents throughout their terms, only trustee candidates are required to be registered voters, according to state law.

But when "my husband decided that the family did not want to move up here with me," Knight said, she decided to seek reelection to the college board. In February, 1987, records show that she reregistered to vote in Los Angeles County. She gave her Lynwood home address of 4328 Nedra St. But instead of listing her East Palo Alto address in the prior registration space, she put down the Lynwood address a second time. Thus, San Mateo County officials were not immediately notified of her new registration. During a telephone interview last week, Knight offered no explanation as to why she filled out the form incorrectly.

Reelected to Board

Last November, Knight was reelected to a second college board term while holding dual voter registrations. In May, however, the state performed a general audit of voter roles and notified San Mateo County that Knight was registered in Lynwood.

When San Mateo County purged Knight from its voter rolls, she apparently wasn't notified, because on her June 13 East Palo Alto Planning Commission application she said she was registered in the city. When asked last week about her application statement, Knight offered no explanation. Knight said only that she never voted in East Palo Alto--San Mateo officials confirm that--and that should be considered proof that she didn't try to deliberately mislead anyone.

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