During the call, Olens said:
“Dr. Barge, our client as state school superintendent, asked me for advice on several matters related to whether local schools can campaign for or against the charter amendment. I sent him a letter yesterday answering the main question.
“That letter did not break any new legal ground. It simply restated what the Georgia Supreme Court made very clear more than 30 years ago: Local governments cannot expend taxpayer resources to tell tax payers how to vote.
“This rule applies equally to supporters and opponents of the amendment. And this rule also applies only to the expenditure of public resources — in other words, government officials and government employees still retain first amendment rights to express personal opinions. They simply don’t have a right, under the first amendment or any other legal provision, to expend public resources in communicating their (personal) opinions.
“That is not a new reading of the law. That’s what the Georgia supreme court has said repeatedly for decades. It’s what state statutes say and it’s a pretty common sense approach, too. The government can’t tax you and then use your tax money to tell you how to vote.
“Now, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about this letter today, and I wanted to take a minute and talk to you and address some of them.
“Some questions, like whether certain groups have broken the law, I can’t answer, because they’re fact-intensive questions, and I do not have all the facts in front of me. I’m not going to get into answering hypothetical questions about what does and doesn’t violate the law when I have an active matter on the issue.
“We’re currently working on advice to the state school superintendent on what enforcement mechanisms may be appropriate or necessary. Because that’s active, I’m not getting into those details right now either.
“Again, my letter made one simple point: the law does not allow local governments to expend taxpayer resources to tell tax payers how to vote — no matter whether they’re saying vote yes or vote no,” he finished. Olens then opened the floor for questions.
Olens said Barge approached him last week about the matter but would not go into Barge’s reaction, saying that would violate attorney-client privilege.
When asked whether or not local school boards that have passed resolutions expressing their own oppositions to the amendment had broken the law, Olens said he couldn’t get into the specifics.
“What we’re working on now is the second letter that referenced with regard to mechanisms and that will be sent to (the superintendent) and thereafter, we’ll take appropriate actions in our discussions with our client,” Olens said.
Olens was then asked how this applied to elected local school board members, but not to the governor or state legislators who have taken positions on issues such as the TSPLOST or gay marriage.
“I don’t want to get into specific fact patterns without a full investigation to go forth. However, I would suggest that the extension of government resources is the key factor,” he said, adding that it would depend on the issue itself.
On whether the attorney general’s office was investigating whether or not local boards had violated any laws, or if it were up to attorneys such as Glen Delk to file a lawsuit, Olens said “different fact patterns would create different answers.”
“At this point, we’re in the process of preparing a second letter to Superintendent Barge that will in greater detail respond to questions such as you have propounded, and it would be my expectation that press would see that letter at a later date once we’ve concluded it,” Olens said.
Local school boards who may have questions or concerns, he said, should consult their own attorneys.
“They have their own attorneys and, frankly, several of them have called me today,” he said. “Once again, we’re not going into a new area of the law. For decades it has been the case that you cannot expend government resources telling people how to vote.”
Olens said the second letter to Barge would surface within two weeks.
“We’re mindful that this is a timely issue and we’re also mindful that many people are going to be looking at the letter so we want to do our best job with it,” he said.
He would not go into whether or not the Georgia School Board Association, which instructed local board members about how to oppose the amendments during the June training session, had broken any laws.
“The letter that was specifically submitted by the superintendent related to local education, local school boards, and that’s the letter we sent back to the superintendent yesterday,” he said. “Keep in mind, some of the cases and some of the statutes similarly, soley relate to local government.”
He said he did not know whether or not the GSBA was allowed to advocate in favor or against the amendment.
“I don’t have in front of me the funding with regards to the Georgia School Board Association, so that would make it a fact-specific question that I can’t answer at this time,” he said.
Click here for a previous story about John Barge.