Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Attorney General Allows School District to Seek to Oust Board Member Over Residency Dispute
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Saugus Union School District may initiate proceedings for the ouster of a board member it claims does not live in the district, Attorney General Kamala Harris has concluded.
Harris’ office Friday released an opinion explaining the decision to allow the district to sue Robert Winkler in quo warranto, a proceeding that can only be brought by, or with the permission of, the attorney general, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure §803.
It is uncertain whether Winkler actually lives in Sylmar, as claimed by the other four members of the board, the attorney general said. But that issue can be resolved by the court, she explained.
“Suffice it to say that there is a substantial factual and legal issue as to the location of Mr. Winkler’s domicile,” the attorney general wrote. “Further, it is in the public interest to have this issue resolved judicially as the determination of Mr. Winkler’s legal residency is critical to his eligibility to serve on the District’s board of trustees.”
Winkler was elected to a four-year term on the board in November 2011. He was registered at the time at a Valencia address, within the district’s boundaries.
According to the district, Winkler subsequently asked that his meeting packets be delivered to a Canyon Country address, outside the district. When the superintendent informed him that delivery outside the district was not possible, he gave a Saugus address, and later a Santa Clarita address, both within the district.
District employees said they never saw Winkler at either of those two addresses when the packets were delivered, and that on one occasion, someone came to the door of the Santa Clarita address and said Winkler didn’t live there. Officials said they hired an investigator, who observed both addresses at different times, and said there was never a sighting of Winkler.
Winkler was sighted on several occasions, however, including late at night, at an address in Sylmar, the investigator said. The district also obtained copies of documents filed under penalty of perjury in civil harassment proceedings, in August 2012 and January of last year, in which Winkler declared that he lived at the Sylmar address.
When asked about those filings by another member, Winkler claimed that he does not live at the Sylmar location but uses it to store his belongings, and occasionally to stay overnight when he’s had too much to drink. Winkler also produced evidence that he receives mail at the Santa Clarita address and asserted that it is his true residence.
The attorney general noted that to serve on a school board, one must be domiciled in the district. Domicile, she explained “is a place of physical presence coupled with the intention to make that place one’s permanent home.”
“While we acknowledge items such as the mailings apparently sent to and received by Mr. Winkler at the Rio Prado address [in Santa Clarita], as well as Mr. Winkler’s current statement that he views that address as his permanent, legal residence, we cannot ignore or discount his regular absence from Rio Prado, his regular presence at Herrick Avenue [in Sylmar], and his sworn statements in the requests for restraining orders that Herrick Avenue is his home.”
The Signal, an area newspaper that has covered the controversy, reported last June that the board voted to declare the seat vacant. The newspaper said last week that Winkler had absented himself from board meetings since then, saying he did not want to be a distraction.
“I’m like an independent merchant fighting a chain store when I’m fighting the school board,” Winkler told The Signal last week. “So I don’t have the resources to fight them tooth and fang.”
School board members’ residence has been a recurring issue in quo warranto proceedings. In 2003, for example, then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer denied a citizens’ group permission to seek the ouster of a San Diego board member who was a supporter of the district’s then-superintendent.
Lockyer explained that while the member got married while in office and admitted spending most of his time at his wife’s home in Coronado, the amount of time he spent at his San Diego apartment, and the facts that he received Internet and telephone service there, parked his car in the area, and listed the address on his driver’s license, voter registration, and tax statements, were sufficient indicia of domicile.
Lockyer’s predecessor, Dan Lungren, granted leave to sue in 1998 when two Grossmont Union High School District board members were alleged to live outside the district; both resigned rather than fight the issue in court.
The opinion, No. 13-902, was prepared for Harris by Deputy Attorney General Marc J. Nolan.
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