Conflict of opinion

by Andre Coleman, Pasadena Weekly, June 26, 2008

As new members were voted onto the Altadena Town Council on Saturday, questions were being asked about possible conflicts of interest by sitting ATC members who received money from the Pasadena Unified School District.

On Tuesday, prior to being voted off the Town Council, then-Chair George Lewis called for the formation of an ethics committee to investigate possible conflicts of interest accusations against Keith “Sarge” Gibbs and Michele Zack, who were already Town Council members and not up
for re-election.

Over the past year, the district has awarded Gibbs and Zack almost $20,000. Gibbs runs a boot camp-style program for students and received $15,800 in 2007. Zack has served as a local history specialist and grant writer for PUSD and last year received two checks, each for $9,999.
Both Gibbs and Zack strongly deny any possible conflicts of interest, saying they were paid for performing services for the district, but that payment did not influence their votes on
any issues.

Town Council members represent citizens in the small unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, but have no law-making or spending powers. Rather, the ATC serves as an advisory board to Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Gibbs is the chairman of the Town Council’s education committee and runs training, intervention and leadership programs at PUSD schools.

The education committee was revived two years ago by then-Town Councilman Justin Chapman, the council’s youngest member and a freelance writer for the Pasadena Weekly who no longer serves on the council and now attends UC Berkeley.

At that time, many members of the ATC were critical of the PUSD’s decision to close four schools in Altadena without first getting input from residents.

Altadena residents began circulating petitions to collect enough signatures to require a feasibility study needed to begin the process of starting a school district. But the drive came to a halt late last year due to infighting among petitioners.

Zack voted in favor of the feasibility study petition, and Gibbs was not on the council at that time. Gibbs, who was featured prominently in a July 12 Pasadena Weekly story about his program at John Muir High School titled “Back to Basics,” was elected to the council two years ago. He has chaired its education committee for about two months.

Gibbs owns and operates Sarge’s Physical Training, a military-style fitness program that helps PUSD children through better nutrition and more exercise.

Lewis, who was replaced on the Town Council Saturday by Ruth Nielen Edwards, said that the accusations of receiving money from the PUSD were not the most important issue. The heart of the matter is maintaining transparency in government.

“I think in the end it will be shown no one is corrupt, but transparency did not take place and that is why you do need an ethics committee,” he said.

Lewis and three other incumbents were sent packing by voters on Saturday. In other races, Okorie Ezieme defeated Mabel Duncan, Alice Wessen beat out Walter Olszewski, and Tecumseh Shackelford won out over Bobby Thompson.

Lewis said the ethics committee, if approved, would be chaired by NAACP Pasadena Branch President Joe Brown.

Gibbs told the Weekly there was no conflict of interest on his part. In fact, Gibbs said he was appointed chair of the education committee precisely because of his business relationship with the PUSD.

“They appointed me based on the work I was doing with the schools.” Gibbs said. “What better person to be on that committee? I was doing this program prior to joining the council. How can it be a conflict of interest working with the school district when everything I do on the Town Council is free of charge?”

Schools critic Rene Amy said this latest controversy is just another in a long line of questions about how the district spends money.

“It’s just another example of how the district can quietly generate support by slathering taxpayer money around the community,” Amy said. “It also gives support to the notion that everyone would benefit if the district opened up its books and posted all of its payments online.”

School districts in San Antonio and Dallas have begun posting their check registries online. That way citizens can see how school officials spend taxpayer funds, Amy said.

When contacted by the Weekly, Zack said she announced her dealings with the PUSD at a Town Council meeting after the district received a $1 million federal grant from a proposal she wrote.

“My fee comes out of the federal grant,” Zack explained. “I bring money into the district. Whatever I am paid does not come out of the diminishing amount the PUSD and the other districts receive from Sacramento, and I don’t sit on the education committee. I would challenge anyone to come up with any vote that presented me with an ethical conflict of interest. There hasn’t been any.” 

Editor’s note: A cousin of reporter André Coleman is employed by Sarge’s Physical Training.