D.A. reviewing whether Canyons School District’s mailers about $283M bond proposal broke the law

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Staff photos of the Salt Lake Tribune staff. Paul Rolly.

When do public expenditures promoting a ballot bond proposal go from being merely informational to illegal campaigning?

An election official in the Utah lieutenant governor’s office suggests Canyons School District may have crossed that line, which would be a class B misdemeanor, and said the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office is reviewing the matter.

The issue involves flyers and postcards sent by the district about a $283 million bond proposal on the ballot this year to renovate and update schools in the district.

State law prohibits spending public funds to campaign for or against candidates or ballot proposals. But a school district has the right to send out informational materials explaining what the bond would do and why it is needed — as long as both sides are presented.

Deputy Elections Director Justin Lee responded in an email to Wendy Davis, who had filed a complaint about the mailers, indicating the district may have violated the law.

The mailer in question points out that the oldest schools in the district were built in the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and gas prices were 24 cents a gallon. It then refers to current students as future superheroes who deserve better.

Lee said that appeared to be advocacy that might be illegal if district money was spent on the mailers.

Canyons spokesman Jeff Haney said the district has been careful to follow all the rules. He said the flyers have pointed out facts and that the district sent out newsletters containing arguments from opponents explaining why voters should reject the proposed bond.

He said the district has noted that the bond would be tax-rate neutral because it would replace existing bonds as they are retired. He added that the district has explained in the mailers that if the bond does not pass, the property tax on an average home in the district would go down by $118 over five years because of the retiring bonds.

Davis had also complained that Friends of Canyons School District, a political issues committee (PIC), had not registered with the state when it sent out pro-bond materials and paid for billboards. But Mark Thomas, Utah’s elections director, said the PIC did register after it was notified, so that issue is resolved.

Better late than never • The Utah Department of Transportation’s Mountain View Corridor, a highway running from Davis County through the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, has been underway for several years, with crews completing it in sections.

UDOT has had to buy homes standing in the way so it can demolish them to make way for the thoroughfare.

That caused a bit of a problem for neighbors in West Valley City, where 104 homes were slated for destruction from 3500 South to 4100 South near 5600 West, but not all the abandoned homes came down right away.

Two vacated homes were left standing for months. Not only were they an eyesore, but they also were a nuisance that left neighbors with safety concerns.

Windows were broken out, with garbage and weeds taking over yards, said neighbor Isaac Nelson. At one point, he said, a police agency held a SWAT training exercise in one of the homes that left it even in worse shape.

Neighbors suspected squatters were living in the shacklike homes and also worried about wild animals taking up residence there.

The happy news is that when Nelson posted photos of the homes on UDOT’s Facebook page, the agency took action.

One home was demolished within days of Nelson’s postings. Another was cleaned up and a fence was built around the yard.

“That home had some asbestos issues,” said UDOT spokesman John Gleason. “So we are cleaning that up before we take down the home.”

He said the two houses must have slipped through the cracks until Nelson’s post made officials aware of the problem.

“We appreciate when people reach out to us and let us know of a problem,” Gleason said. “When [Nelson] posted the pictures on our page, we agreed that we needed to address it right away.”

He said summer was a busy construction season so, with all the projects underway, the homes in that West Valley City corridor were missed.

City priorities • Attorney Joe Hatch was dismayed last week when he saw that his car, parked in front of his house, had been burglarized and vandalized.

Thieves had broken a back window to get into the car and then stole a duffel bag containing a few items.

Hatch called Salt Lake City police to report the burglary and basically was informed they don’t make house calls. He was told to go to the city’s website, fill out the online form and take a picture of the damage. He also was told to clean the broken glass off the street.

So Hatch scooped up two dustpans of shattered glass. Because it was early in the day and he was upset about the vandalism, he accidentally put the waste in the blue recycling bin rather than the garbage can.

Later that day, while he was at work, there was a loud pounding on his home’s door. His wife, who was recovering from surgery, went to the door and was scolded by a recycling officer for putting glass in the recycling bin.

So enforcers don’t have time to investigate a burglary, but they do have time to go to a house and berate an occupant over two dustpans of glass.