The Leak That Wasn’t

This is an opinion article about the Board of Trustees of the Alameda United School District (AUSD).

Sometimes an important piece of news, and in this case a probable predictor of future news, almost slips past you. I must credit the Blogging Bayport blog1 for not only alerting me to this one but also highlighting the most important point that I might otherwise have overlooked.

On February 19, Blogging Bayport’s post of the day was a recap of a story that had appeared in the East Bay Citizen (EBC) two days before2. In that article, it was reported that AUSD board trustee Jennifer Williams had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). This would be a story of moderate interest on it’s own but then the article not only quoted the arrest report3 but went further to quote an email sent by Williams to her board colleagues about the incident. The e-mail was marked “privileged communication” that was “later determined to be a public record by the school district’s legal counsel”2. As Blogging Bayport theorized: “someone on the Board leaked the information to EB Citizen… the likelihood is slim that someone without any knowledge of the case was actively watching the police blotter.”1

And that’s what caught my intention. True, it’s possible as Blogging Bayport points out, that EBC was monitoring the Alameda Police log, which would have posted about the February 12 arrest no earlier than February 13 and with that information, decided to issue a public records request to the AUSD for any e-mails it may have and then received a ruling from the AUSD’s attorney in time to post a news article no more than four days later4.  There’s only one problem with that reasoning: the e-mail was sent by Williams at 5:49pm on Friday, February 145.  Valentine’s Day.  The Friday before the President’s Day long-weekend.  EBC published on the President’s Day, a day off for the AUSD.6

Note also the specific language in the story: “the email was later determined” to be public (2). Later than what? How could the attorney later determine something was public that was only known to exist by a half dozen people until it was exposed by EBC on a holiday Monday after it was sent at 5:49 pm on the previous Friday unless EBC obtained the e-mail by some means other than a public records request?  In fact, one wonders when the AUSD’s attorney had time to make this ruling.  Was this actually important enough for somebody with authority in the AUSD legal department to pause their vacation to make a ruling? It is worth noting that once I knew the e-mail existed and knew that it was a public document, it took over a week for me to obtain a copy of the same e-mail through a public records request7.  I‘m not a lawyer but that seems like a bit of ass-covering on behalf of somebody by the AUSD’s attorney.

So it seems it was a leaked. Except it wasn’t, because apparently you can’t leak public documents even if you didn’t know the document was public before you leaked it. And that all got me thinking, why was it necessary to leak that e-mail at all? It clearly says it was privileged information so one would think ethically, if not strictly legally, maybe one shouldn’t forward it to the press. And it wasn’t even necessary for EBC to have the e-mail in order to report the story. You could simply tip EBC to the arrest report that would have been there for anyone to read anonymously on the APD website. The only thing EBC would have to do, which it did anyway, was to call Ms. Williams to confirm that she had been arrested. On the outside chance that a totally different 51 year-old white female called Jennifer Kaye Williams had been arrested for a DUI that night, she would have immediately cleared things up.

It seems to me that whoever leaked this story wanted Ms. Williams and possibly others to know that they had done it. This was, in a perverse way, a power move meant presumably to not only intimidate and pressure Ms. Williams but also to be very clear who was doing it, all the while being deniable enough to deflect much scrutiny. It was, ironically for a school board, the tactic of a bully. This is not the stereotypical bully who simply walks up in the school yard and beats you up for your lunch money. No. To quote a currently popular Broadway musical about school life this is a different sort of bully: this is an Apex Predator.

Footnotes

  1. https://laurendo.wordpress.com/2020/02/19/lapse-in-judgment/
  2. https://ebcitizen.com/2020/02/17/alameda-school-board-member-arrested/
  3. The Alameda Police publish a daily crime report log that includes arrests.  They do not make this available indefinitely so I have taken a copy and made it available here: https://alamedaclarion.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/daily-activity-log-021220.pdf
  4. The arrest occurred Feb 12.  The police wouldn’t post before Feb 13.  The EBC story is dated February 17.  So there were no more than 17 – 13 = 4 days between when EBC might have known about the arrest based strictly on public info and when they posted their news story about it.
  5. I made my own records request and received the e-mail quoted by EBC. My copy is here: https://alamedaclarion.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/williams-to-board-feb-14.pdf
  6. See http://alamedausd-ca.schoolloop.com/file/1514016404905/1552638818511/4808279374587622010.pdf. Shows that AUSD considered President’s Day to be a “District Holiday” in 2020.
  7. Susan Davis who manages these requests for AUSD acknowledged my request public records request by e-mail on February 20.  I received my response on March 2 (linked in a footnote above).

Is It Astroturfing? Maybe Just Turf-Patching?

This is an opinion article about the “Strong Schools for Alameda” campaign expenditure committee, primarily formed to support the 2020 Alameda Measure A Parcel Tax initiative.

Enacting a new tax is a difficult and thankless task. This is especially true when the threshold to enact is two thirds of voters and many of those voters must vote for a new tax on themselves. It gets even more awkward when you will be the chief beneficiary of the new tax and are also doing most of the spending to get that new tax passed. Even if you are never troubled with cognitive dissonance, it can’t hurt to give yourself a little cover; maybe manufacture a third-party to do some of the work on your behalf.

Which brings me to “Strong Schools for Alameda”. According to its website it “is a grassroots organization of parents, teachers and community leaders leading the campaign to pass Measure A to attract and retain quality teachers and provide our students with the outstanding education they deserve”. This might well be true. What is definitely true is that it is a “Committee Primarily Formed to Support a Ballot Measure”. This is a legal term of art for a group that collects and spends money in a political campaign. In this case, the committee exists to support the 2020 Alameda Measure A, which would add a new parcel tax to the bills of Alameda residents to fund raises for Alameda teachers (as well as other district staff).

Is Strong Schools a “grassroots” organization? I would say no. Grassroots is a term that has no rigorous definition but is normally used to connote an organization that has been built by individuals in a community to enact some kind of positive (in their opinion) change. Given that this is a campaign expenditure committee (often called a PAC), asking whether it is grassroots is really asking where its money is coming from. You would expect that such an organization would be getting most of their money from small cash contributions from members of the Alameda community. In terms of what I can verify from filings made with Alameda County where Strong Schools (FPPC #1422449) does its reporting their contributors are as follows:

Alameda Education Association (AEA): $2000 (cash)1
Alameda Education Association (AEA): $1800 (in-kind)1
Alameda Firefighters’ Local 55: $1000 (cash)

That’s it. $38001 from the teacher’s union and $1000 from an allied union. Now, it’s possible that there have been small contributions not yet reported, because they are being made late and past the reporting deadline (we won’t know until after election day). Of course it’s also possible that a group of highly-motivated citizens incited merely by excitement at teacher pay increases, gathered on the Saturday directly following the district’s vote to ratify a labor agreement giving teachers raises, rushed out and registered the domain name “strongschoolsforalameda.org”. You know, just in case it might be useful someday. I do it all the time.

It is tempting to call this astroturfing, a tactic whereby a special interest group funds a fake grassroot organization to create the appearance of broader interest in that group’s goals than might really exist. I think this a bit of a harsh label here. For one thing, it would be overly dramatic and a little unfair to lump a local teacher’s union in with Big Tobacco and Walmart. That’s why I’m going to try to coin the term “turf-patching”.

Anyone who has ever maintained a lawn (which are mercifully going out of style in drought-prone places) knows about turf-patching. Maybe the family dog has given extra special attention to a specific area of grass and it’s gone yellow or brown; an eyesore in the middle of your otherwise perfect green patch. In order to resolve this, you would typically come in and give some new grass roots a hand: by scarifying or stripping the dead patch, laying a bit of soil and re-seeding the area. Oh and keep the dog off it.

That’s what Strong Schools is. There might be some real grass growing out of those roots in the form of motivated parents and students. But for the patch to exist and the roots to have a chance of growing, it takes a motivated gardener with the resources and self-interest in having it succeed.

Correction

  1. A previous version of this article stated that AEA had given Strong Schools $2800 in cash and $1000 in-kind and added that amount to $2800, all in error.  The numbers stated in the article are now the correct ones as stated in AEA’s January 23 Form 460-A amended filing.