A majority of the Imperial County Board of Education voted to call for the immediate resignation of Trustee Annette Gonzalez-Buttner during its regular meeting on Monday evening, Jan. 11.
The vote was part of a resolution that also declared the simultaneous holding of a trustee seat on the county Board of Education, which advises the Imperial County Office of Education, and an Imperial Community College District trustee seat, both of which Gonzalez-Buttner currently occupies, to be incompatible.
The board’s 4-1 decision, with Gonzalez-Buttner voting in opposition, came after a lengthy and contentious discussion that included Gonzalez-Buttner’s allegations that she was being unfairly targeted by her detractors.
The board’s action also comes amid an ongoing criminal case that Gonzalez-Buttner is facing in the local Superior Court alleging various felony counts of election fraud and grand theft tied to the ICOE board seat.
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 position.
As of Tuesday morning, Jan. 12, Gonzalez-Buttner did not appear to have any intention of resigning.
Instead, she repeated allegations she made during Monday’s meeting that characterized the resolution as “gameplay” by ICOE Superintendent Dr. Todd Finnell and ICOE’s legal counsel, Gil Abed, an attorney with the San Diego-based law firm of Artiano Shinoff.
She questioned why Finnell did not choose to simply request via email that the state Attorney General’s Office issue an opinion regarding the potential incompatibility for the two elected positions. And further alleged that Finnell preferred to “enrich” Abed with the “unnecessary” billing for legal services.
Gonzalez-Buttner said she intends to file public records requests with ICOE to help determine whether Finnell and Abed made a concerted effort to not seek the AG’s Office’s determination via email.
“Finnell personally directed Abed to write the resolution and to include a long list of mistruths,” she alleged Jan. 12.
During the board meeting, both Finnell and Abed explained that the process that ICOE chose to follow was the appropriate one, as outlined by the state AG’s Office. The process is known as “quo warranto” and the AG’s Offices uses it to resolve disputes about whether an individual has the legal right to hold the public office they occupy.
Finnell and Abed also reminded Gonzalez-Buttner that it was her decision to simultaneously hold the ICOE and College District board seats that prompted the ICOE board resolution.
“Despite Ms. Buttner’s claims that this could be handled differently, this is the process for an agency to use when an office holder refuses to vacate their seat,” Finnell said in a Jan. 12 email. “(The process of quo warranto) confirms this, and also confirms that a licensed attorney must prepare the application and supporting documents.”
During the meeting, the resolution seeking her immediate resignation was characterized by Abed as an attempt to stave off costly and prolonged litigation and which honored Gonzalez-Buttner’s due process rights.
As part of that process, ICOE has also been in communication with the state AG’s Office, which is expected in the coming weeks to make a finding about whether there is sufficient evidence to determine whether the ICOE and Community College District trustee seats are incompatible elected offices. The college district board oversees Imperial Valley College.
Additionally, the state agency will make a determination about whether ICOE can then proceed with a civil lawsuit, if need be, asking the local Superior Court to order Gonzalez-Buttner’s resignation, Abed said.
Once the AG’s Office makes its determination, Gonzalez-Buttner will be afforded an opportunity to respond, he said.
“We were hoping to resolve this amicably with Ms. Buttner before starting the process,” Abed said during the Jan. 11 meeting.
That amicable attempt included a Dec. 18 letter ICOE sent to Gonzalez-Buttner laying out its position regarding the incompatibility of the ICOE and IVC board seats.
The letter was sent two days after she was sworn onto to the college board and had requested her response within 10 days.
“Every effort was made to reach out to Ms. Buttner and have her respond to this issue,” ICOE Superintendent Dr. Todd Finnell said during the meeting. “She chose not to do that.”
Gonzalez-Buttner contested Finnell’s assertion and said that the letter she received from ICOE was postmarked Dec. 31, which still afforded her additional time to respond.
“I have not disregarded this,” she said. “The deadline has not lapsed.”
Prior to the board’s vote to seek her immediate resignation, Gonzalez-Buttner had unsuccessfully motioned to have the resolution’s language amended so that it directed ICOE staff to seek a legal opinion from the state AG’s Office on the matter of the offices’ alleged incompatibility.
Gonzalez-Buttner’s motion specifically sought to have ICOE request that either the county’s counsel, district attorney, or one of the county’s state representatives request the state AG’s Office issue a legal opinion on the matter.
The process Gonzalez-Buttner had sought was applicable given the circumstances of the matter, she said, and would have cost nothing as opposed to the decision to involve Abed.
“I don’t think that has been exhausted and that’s an option,” she said.
Her motion set off another debate about whether she was within her rights as a trustee to request the board act on a resolution that was not the same as the one that had been on its agenda.
Though board President Victor Jaime had initially questioned the propriety of having the board vote on the motion, he eventually relented. The motion ultimately failed to get seconded by another board member.
Trustee Alicia Armenta then motioned to vote on the original resolution, with newly elected Trustee Lucy Hendry seconding the motion, paving the way for the board’s approval.
During Monday’s meeting, Gonzalez-Buttner asserted that the ICOE board’s responsibilities differ greatly from those of any local school district and that there is no potential for conflicts of interest to arise from her occupying seats simultaneously on the ICOE and IVC boards.
In its legal filings with the state AG’s Office, ICOE maintained that it is a governing board for multiple pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school sites and that it shares coterminous (the same) boundaries with the Imperial Community College District.
ICOE also stated that it serves as the Committee on School District Organization that will determine the boundaries of IVC trustees this year due to the updated census data, according to the legal filings it submitted to the AG’s Office.
In November, Gonzalez-Buttner had sought a legal opinion on the potential incompatibility of the elected offices from the Attorney General.
While the state did not offer a formal legal opinion regarding her 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,” stated 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.”
Gonzalez-Buttner’s term on the ICOE board is scheduled to expire in December 2022. Her criminal trial is expected to begin Feb. 1.
Gonzalez-Buttner was initially charged with two felonies in February 2019, and an additional two felonies in July 2019. She 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.