La Cañada school board opens doors on possible conflict of interest

The La Cañada Unified Governing Board on Tuesday dragged a portion of its closed-session discussion into the light, sharing with the public a legal opinion on a potential conflict of interest related to one of its own members.

Board member Joel Peterson is chief executive of Student Planning Services, a local academic counseling and consulting business. Among other things, the business sees students through the admissions process of private schools or colleges.

According to Board President Scott Tracy, who presented the information at Tuesday's meeting, a request was made in August for legal counsel to look into whether Peterson's financial interest in the business would be a conflict to his tenure on the board.

The legal counsel's response and findings, delivered in a seven-page letter, will be shared with the public, Tracy said.

Written and signed by Howard Friedman, legal partner in the Los Angeles office of the law firm Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost, the letter advised the board on laws regarding conflict of interest and made a determination that the existence of Peterson's business, in and of itself, did not cause an ongoing conflict of interest. Still, Friedman advised, the district is prohibited from doing business or entering a contract with Student Planning Services for as long as Peterson serves on the board.

“Government code … prohibits a public official from having a financial interest in any contract made by them in their official capacity or by any body or board of which they are a member,” the letter reads.

There is no evidence of any contract or agreement having been made between LCUSD and Peterson's business.

Peterson admitted Tuesday night to casually discussing with Superintendent Wendy Sinnette whether she thought the business would be a conflict, claiming she told him ‘no' at least once in the course of three meetings. Sinnette indicated Tuesday that was correct.

Peterson also said he asked her opinion on his employing LCUSD's former Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Operation Mike Leininger, who retired in June after 26 years with the district, as Student Planning Services' vice president of development.

“Leininger was retired, that was not in my purview,” Sinnette responded.

Board member Andrew Blumenfeld said that regardless of the superintendent's input, that information has no bearing on whether there is an actual conflict. Blumenfeld requested Tuesday the board seek further counsel on whether a perceived potential for conflict could have an adverse affect on votes related to the parcel tax the district is putting before voters this spring.

This request is in keeping with Friedman's advice.

“Due to the harsh outcomes that may result should a conflict of interest exist related to any matter considered by the Board,” he wrote, “we suggest that you consider consulting with legal counsel with specific facts as they may arise so that there can be some analysis and advice as to whether or not a conflict of interest actually exists.”


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