Annette Gonzalez-Buttner, who was sworn in as the newest trustee for the Imperial County Community College District Board of Trustees, says she intends to finish her term as a member of the Imperial County Board of Education, despite calls that she resign from that role by county Superintendent of Schools Dr. Todd Finnell. | FILE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
The Imperial County Office of Education is calling on Annette Gonzalez-Buttner to resign her seat on the organization’s board upon being sworn in as an Imperial Community College District trustee.
The ICOE has taken the position that Gonzalez-Buttner’s swearing-in for the college district’s seat, which was to occur Wednesday, Dec. 16, will automatically relinquish her seat with ICOE in accordance with state Education Code that prohibits a public official from simultaneously holding two different public offices if the offices have overlapping and conflicting public duties.
“Therefore, ICOE believes that the only appropriate step for Ms. Buttner is to resign from ICOE and concentrate her efforts at (Imperial Valley College),” Superintendent Todd Finnell stated in an email Wednesday morning, several hours before the college board meeting. “ICOE will take whatever necessary steps through legal proceedings with the Office of Attorney General if Ms. Buttner fails to do so.”
Finnell’s statement closely follows Gonzalez-Buttner’s announcement on Sunday, Dec. 13, that she intended to retain her ICOE board seat while simultaneously serving as the newly elected board trustee for the Imperial Community College District.
Her announcement came after having received guidance from the state Attorney General’s Office that did not explicitly state she would be required to vacate the ICOE board seat upon being sworn in to serve on the IVC board.
Her inquiry specifically asked whether her simultaneously holding the two public offices would legally be considered incompatible, as defined by state Education Code.
Her decision to retain both elected seats also comes amid an ongoing criminal case in the county Superior Court, where she is facing multiple felony charges related to election fraud.
Those charges allege that in mid-2014 she had established her permanent residence, or “domicile,” in Santa Clara County and did not live at the Calexico address she provided in her 2017 candidacy filings for the ICOE board seat.
While the state AG’s Office did not offer a formal legal opinion regarding Gonzalez-Buttner’s inquiry, its guidance did cite a 1973 ruling the agency made that determined a Los Angeles Community College board member could also legally serve simultaneously as assistant superintendent of education for the state Board of Education.
“Please note that we are providing this opinion as a general resource and cannot comment on whether it reflects current law or applies to any particular situation,” said Marc Nolan, with the AG’s Office’s Legal Opinions Unit, in his Dec. 2 response to Gonzalez-Buttner.
“For guidance, you should consult your local agency counsel or a private attorney.”
On Wednesday, Gonzalez-Buttner stated that she hadn’t consulted any legal counsel for ICOE because the board has no such counsel aside from the attorneys who are hired by the ICOE superintendent to serve exclusively on behalf of the superintendent.
“If the County Board of Education chooses by vote to hire its own attorney, who has a duty of loyalty to the Board with no conflict of interest with the County Superintendent, of course I would be glad to engage in any relevant discussions,” she stated in an email.
However, she did previously point out that Pompeyo Tabarez Jr. and Helen Diaz Molina were both elected in November to the Heber Elementary School District and the Heber Public Utility District.
“There are elected offices in which a person may serve concurrently,” she stated in a Dec. 15 email in response to questions from this newspaper.
Her Nov. 16 letter to the AG’s Office stated that the sections of the state Education Code governing the community college board differ from those that establish the ICOE board and superintendent’s oversight powers over K-12 school districts.
Her letter further contended that her position on both the IVC and ICOE boards would not likely give rise to issues of incompatibility, as defined by California Government Code Section 1099, which prohibits a public official from simultaneously holding two different public offices if the offices have overlapping and conflicting public duties.
“During my seven years on the County Board of Education, I have not been aware of items that would trigger Government Code 1099 findings of incompatibility between Imperial Valley College and the Imperial County Board of Education,” her letter to the AG’s Office stated.
On Wednesday, Finnell stated that it would be appropriate and prudent for Gonzalez-Buttner to choose which of the two trustee seats she wants to occupy and to resign from the other.
“The government code and the law are clear that a holder of public office should not have divided loyalties or even the potential of the conflict of interest or divided loyalties,” Finnell stated. “While ICOE and IVC work closely for the benefit of the community at large, each institution should have board members that are dedicated 100 percent to that institution.”
Gonzalez-Buttner’s term on the ICOE board is scheduled to expire in December 2022. Her swearing-in ceremony for the college board was scheduled for its regular meeting later in the day Dec. 16. And her criminal trial is expected to begin Feb. 1.
Gonzalez-Buttner was initially charged with two felonies in February 2019, an additional two felonies in July 2019, and has denied all charges to date.
Those charges include two counts of perjury that allege she falsified her 2017 candidate intention statement under penalty of perjury and had submitted a California driver’s license application in 2017 listing her father’s Rockwood Avenue address in Calexico as her own.
The count of grand theft alleges Gonzalez-Buttner has illegally obtained ICOE board member stipends and health insurance under false pretenses, while the charge of filing a falsified candidacy declaration alleges that she provided a fraudulent address on the document, which is a form not signed under penalty of perjury.
The Rockwood Avenue address in Calexico that Gonzalez-Buttner is alleged to have fraudulently used in her 2017 candidacy filings is the same address she used in her filings for the Nov. 3 election, according to public records available from the county Registrar’s Office.
She won the Nov. 3 election over incumbent Louis Wong, who received 38.3 percent of the vote in comparison to the 61.7 percent she garnered.
Neither the ICOE nor IVC board’s bylaws contain any provision explicitly prohibiting a board member from simultaneously holding more than one public office, officials previously stated. The ICOE board’s bylaws do outline 12 different scenarios in which an ICOE board vacancy would occur and how to fill such a vacancy.
One such scenario includes a determination that an individual simultaneously serving on two publicly elected bodies constituted an incompatibility of public offices, Finnell previously said.