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Former Town Counsel alleges schools illegally sent out information on ballot questions

May 12, 2023  Updated May 19, 2023 at 5:53 p.m.
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Brookline’s former Town Counsel has filed a complaint with the state alleging that messages from school officials to parents about questions on the May 2 ballot violated campaign finance laws.

In the complaint, filed May 7, Joslin Murphy gave five examples of emails sent to parents of Brookline public school parents from Superintendent Linus Guillory and the principals of three Brookline schools that she alleges violated the state’s campaign finance laws.

The messages include information about two ballot questions that were in front of Brookline voters on May 2: Question 1, a debt exclusion to rebuild the Pierce School, and Questions 2a and 2b, an operating override to help support the schools and other municipal departments. Voters approved both ballot questions.

“Both the operating override and Pierce debt exclusion votes will have significant implications on our programming, personnel, and capacity to meet our students’ educational and social-emotional needs,” Guillory wrote in an email cited in the complaint.

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Massachusetts state law bars using public resources, including personnel, computers and email, for political purposes.

The possible consequences if a violation is found include an educational letter, a “disposition agreement” in which the subject of the investigation agrees to take some action, or a referral to the state attorney general’s office, according to Jason Tait, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

While the messages don’t explicitly call for support of the ballot questions, even providing seemingly objective information can be a violation of campaign finance laws, according to the state.

“Governmental resources may not be used to distribute voter information commenting on the substance of a ballot question,” notes a 2015 bulletin from the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. “The prohibition applies whether the material that is distributed advocates for or against a question … or simply purports to be objective and factual.”

Tait, the OCPF spokesperson, said he could not comment on the specifics of any investigation or confirm that there is an investigation.

Generally, he said, public resources may not be used for political purposes.

“These issues most frequently involve distributing information to voters concerning municipal ballot questions,” Tait said.

In a memo dated March 31, Town Administrator Charles Carey warned Brookline town employees to be careful about campaign finance laws.

“The law prohibits the use of municipal resources to influence the outcome of elections,” he wrote.

Assistant Town Administrator Devon Fields said that the Town Administrator’s office is aware of the complaint and looking into the allegations.

A spokesperson for the Brookline school system did not respond to a Brookline.News request for comment.

Murphy, who retired as Town Counsel in 2021, is now a Town Meeting and Advisory Committee member.

Thursday meeting yields Advisory Committee thumbs up for Pierce

In a previous story, Brookline.News reported that the Advisory Committee, which gives fiscal recommendations to Town Meeting, was holding off on supporting the Pierce School project.

That changed at a six-hour meeting last night. The committee voted 12-9, with three abstentions, to recommend that Town Meeting  allow the town to borrow funds to finance the project.

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