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Vague Law Lets Schools Official Live 230 Miles From District

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than eight months after his appointment to the governing board of the Antelope Valley Union High School District, trustee Bob McMullen still lives and spends the majority of his time in a small San Luis Obispo County town about 230 miles away.

After he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the five-member high school board last July, McMullen publicly promised to return to the Antelope Valley from Cambria. But last week, halfway through his term, McMullen said he’s been unable to sell his house there and still has no immediate prospects.

His residency situation highlights the vagueness of state laws that supposedly require local elected officials to live in the jurisdictions they represent. And since July, it has led McMullen into an ordeal of eight-hour round-trip drives to attend twice-a-month school board meetings.

“I just happen to be caught in a circumstance I can’t get rid of,” McMullen, 57, said, referring to his unsold Cambria house. The former longtime Antelope Valley resident insists that he still wants to move back, but doesn’t know if he’ll be able to by the time his current term ends in November.

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McMullen and fellow high school board members contend his residency status, despite the remote locale, is legal. And they say commuting has not hindered his duties on the board, which governs six schools and about 11,000 students in the Antelope Valley. But some questions remain. For instance:

* School district records show McMullen has missed seven of 29 board meetings since last July, more than any other board member. Six of those were special sessions held to discuss unification proposals, and McMullen contends that he intentionally did not attend because he opposes unification.

* In an interview at his Cambria house last week, McMullen estimated that he spends about 60% of his time there and 40% in the Antelope Valley. McMullen said he typically spends three or four days locally when the school board meets, but all weekends and most of his weeks off in Cambria.

* And although he is registered to vote at a friend’s house in Lancaster where he said he stays overnight, the only house he owns, and his driver’s license and car registration addresses--criteria listed in state law for helping determine residency--all are in Cambria.

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State law says school board members must be residents of their districts and registered voters. But what exactly constitutes residency for school board or city council members is, as one Los Angeles city attorney described it last year, “like a slippery eel.”

The state’s Elections Code says a person can only have one legal residence at a time--"that place in which his or her habitation is fixed, wherein the person has the intention of remaining and to which, whenever he or she is absent, the person has the intention of returning.”

In McMullen’s case, he says he has the intention of returning to the Antelope Valley if he can sell his house in Cambria. But, he says he has not changed his driver’s license or car registration addresses to his friend’s Lancaster house because “that’s only temporary.”

Henrietta Willis, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office, said McMullen’s residency status would be questioned only if a complaint were filed. She said the registrar rarely challenges officeholders’ registrations, although the issue often surfaces in political campaigns.

In an apparent mix-up, meanwhile, the registrar’s office in San Luis Obispo County said last week that McMullen is still registered to vote at his house in Cambria. That should have been canceled when he re-registered in Lancaster, but was not, Los Angeles County officials said.

“It’s pretty loose as far as what is and what isn’t a residency,” said Tony Miller, California’s chief deputy secretary of state. “The definitions are indeed so murky, the courts have shied away from throwing anybody out of office.” Miller said the courts have favored leaving such issues to voters.

A similar issue surfaced several years ago with Los Angeles Harbor Commission member Robert Rados Sr., a Mayor Tom Bradley appointee who lived much of the year outside the city in a house in Rancho Palos Verdes but also owned a house within the city of San Pedro.

The Los Angeles city attorney’s office ruled at the time that Rados met the city’s residency requirement because Rados had the Rancho Palos Verdes house for sale and said he intended to eventually return to the San Pedro house. The residency requirements for city commission members are the same as those for local elected officials.

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For his part, McMullen contends that his voter registration in Lancaster and a separate mailbox he rents at a business there satisfy the law. He registered in Lancaster on July 18, 1990--the day he was appointed to fill out the remaining term of Larry Rucker, who had died a month earlier.

Thus far, the other high school board members have had no public complaints about McMullen’s residency. “No, I have not seen it as a problem,” said high school board President Wilda Andrejcik. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s meeting his obligations as a board member,” she said.

Andrejcik said she agrees with the intent and interpretation of state laws that are supposed to have officeholders live in their jurisdictions. But in McMullen’s case, she said, “He’s trying to move back to the area. It’s not as if he’s not trying.”

McMullen, a retired Southern California Edison Co. employee, had served three terms on the high school board from 1977 until November, 1989, when he decided not to seek reelection. He had moved to Cambria mostly full time after selling his longtime Lancaster home in mid-1989.

But after Rucker’s death in June, 1990, the other high school board members chose not to hold a special election to fill the vacancy. And the board members suspended their own rules that called for publicly soliciting potential appointees, and instead picked McMullen.

At the time, board members complained that a special election would have cost the district too much money and said they picked McMullen because he could step into the job quickly.

For his part, McMullen said he accepted the appointment to help the district at a time when it was in a difficult situation.

McMullen and his wife had bought their house on a hillside in Cambria in January, 1986, for about $170,000, public records show. But after moving there, McMullen said he found the damp coastal weather aggravated his arthritis, spurring his desire to return to the high desert.

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His Cambria house was first offered for $424,000, but the asking price has since been cut to $349,000--still with no takers, McMullen said. The 2,076-square-foot house is in the Pine Knolls Estates community of Cambria, a seaside town of about 5,400 people just north of San Luis Obispo.

In the interview there last week, McMullen originally said his house has been listed for sale ever since his board appointment last year. But later, he acknowledged it had been privately listed with only one agent until late January.

At the time of his appointment last July, McMullen said, he had a prospective buyer for the Cambria house and even began moving some belongings back to Lancaster. But that deal fell through, and he said he currently has no serious potential buyers.

Unless the Cambria house sells soon, McMullen said he may have to consider resigning from the $240-a-month school board job. He cited the expenses of commuting and paying rent--he refused to say how much--for his friend’s spare bedroom in Lancaster.

The school board job pays up to $240 a month for attending board meetings. But board members also get more than $6,000 a year in insurance benefits. And because McMullen, even prior to his appointment, had 12 years on the board, he also qualified for lifetime district-paid health insurance.

Considering the trouble and expense of the commute, McMullen said he has no intention of running for a full four-year term in November.


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