On Her Way Out of Office, a School Board Member Created a Consulting Firm So The Board Could Hire Her

At a recent board meeting, some parents and district employees questioned why the expenditure — now under review by the Fair Political Practices Commission — was needed at all.

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Tamara Otero had governed over the Cajon Valley School Board in East County for 12 years, working closely with the superintendent and his cabinet.

So when a district parent defeated Otero in her run for re-election last year by capturing 62 percent of the vote, Superintendent David Miyashiro and his staff suggested a way to keep her in the 14,800-student district: Hire her as a consultant.

Otero would continue her work in family and community engagement and with the district’s TEDxKids program, World of Work initiative and more — only now she would get paid significantly more than she would have as a board member.

“What we discussed was, well, once she’s off the board, she can be hired as a consultant, and we don’t have to lose that institutional knowledge but also the hard work in a time when every department is understaffed,” Miyashiro told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Dec. 9, Otero — still board president at the time under its policy — filed paperwork with the state to form a new consulting company, Alfabet Soup LLC. The document did not include her name.

At a board meeting four days later, minutes after Otero’s successor was sworn in, the newly seated board awarded the firm a $60,000 no-bid, half-year contract, along with more than a dozen other consultant agreements.

But in a district that is no stranger to accusations of conflicts, that contract has drawn allegations of self-dealing and is now under review by the Fair Political Practices Commission. And parents and district employees are questioning whether such an expenditure is needed at all.

The day after the Dec. 13 board meeting, Otero filed another document with the state for her new business. This one included her name.

Three weeks later, Otero’s successor, Anthony Carnevale, said he was reviewing the agenda materials from Dec. 13 and realized one contract was missing: Alfabet Soup. He asked Miyashiro about it and was told the firm belonged to Otero.

Believing the contract was a conflict of interest, Carnevale filed a complaint with the FPPC last month about Otero, alleging a violation of state law. In that complaint, he said that before Otero left the board, she had presided over setting the agenda for that Dec. 13 meeting, where her own firm’s contract would be voted on.

“I would hold the same view that that was improper and self-dealing, even if it wasn’t somebody I competed with,” Carnevale told the Union-Tribune.

Government Code Section 1090, the part of state law that Carnevale believes had been violated, forbids elected bodies from making contracts in which any of their members have a financial interest.

According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, courts have ruled that the law is violated not only when an elected official actually votes to approve such a contract, but also when they participate in “planning, preliminary discussions, compromises (and) drawing of plans.”

Every member of a board is presumed to be involved in the making of all contracts, whether or not a member was personally involved, and that presumption can’t be avoided by having the elected official in question abstain from the contract vote, the commission says.

Whether or not state law were violated or board members knew about Otero’s involvement in the company before voting on its contract, the board may appear to have acted in Otero’s interest rather than the public’s, said John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

“The public could perceive that the board has worked some deal to compensate the outgoing president almost immediately as she leaves the board,” he said. “That kind of a perception … can erode the public’s trust in their ability to look out for the public’s interest, rather than in the interest of a former board member.”

Pelissero said it’s also a problem that board members said they didn’t know Alfabet Soup belonged to Otero.

“Board members should be fully informed before they vote on something, and it’s usually the responsibility of the superintendent or the business manager to inform board members,” Pelissero said. “In this case, it doesn’t sound like everyone was being entirely transparent with other board members, and certainly not with the public, in the way this contract was put together and approved.”

This is not the first time the Cajon Valley school board, which governs an East County district of 14,800 students, including many refugees, has been accused of a conflict involving a company connected to Otero.

In 2019, the board awarded a $655,000 building contract to her son’s company, Otero Construction, while she was the board president. Otero abstained from that vote but did not disclose that it was her son’s company, according to a recording of that board meeting and reporting from East County Magazine. She has denied that there was any conflict.

Last month, Carnevale asked Miyashiro for a special meeting for the board to terminate the Alfabet Soup contract and to evaluate Miyashiro’s conduct regarding the matter, since Miyashiro had not notified the board on Dec. 13 of the connection between Alfabet Soup and Otero.

The Alfabet Soup contract was the last on a 16-item list of agreements to be voted on in one motion, and unlike the others, that contract was not provided to the board, Carnevale said in his complaint. “I found this agenda item to be uniquely opaque compared to the other 15 items on the agenda,” he wrote.

“The board was left in the dark on the matter, and the public was left in the dark on the matter, and the superintendent had knowledge,” Carnevale added in an interview.

That special meeting he requested was held late last month. Several community members criticized the contract during public comments.

Some questioned why the board should pay to hire Otero as a consultant to work on programs, such as TEDxKids and World of Work, that the district had already had for years and for which it already has staff.

“Having her be paid this is absolutely ridiculous,” said Angie Asaro, a Cajon Valley employee of 20 years, at the Jan. 31 meeting. “We the people voted her out. That right there should speak volumes in her not being wanted or needed in our district anymore.”

After public comments, Carnevale asked to confirm whether other board members had known that Alfabet Soup was Otero’s company when they approved its contract. All four said no.

Otero, whose job as board president had been to set the meeting agendas while consulting with the superintendent, said in an interview that she didn’t know the Alfabet Soup contract had been placed on the Dec. 13 agenda and said that staff had generated agenda items, not her.

Later during the Jan. 31 meeting, however, Trustee Jo Alegria said she actually had known Alfabet Soup was Otero’s but had forgotten.

“Looking back on that situation, I realized not only did Tamara did mention it to me, I had forgotten that she did,” Alegria said during the meeting. “I also recall that when Tamara was still on the dais that David Miyashiro had made a comment, a public comment, that Tamara will probably just be hired back to Cajon Valley to help complete the work that she started.”

Otero, current board president Jim Miller, the district’s attorney Dan Shinoff and Miyashiro all hold that the Alfabet Soup contract was neither improper nor illegal. Otero did not vote on the contract, which Shinoff said is “extremely important.”

On Jan. 31, Shinoff argued that Otero was no longer a board member when the contract was put on the Dec. 13 agenda and that she had officially left the board Dec. 8, when the election results were certified.

State law and the board’s policy say members continue in their positions until their successor is sworn in. Carnevale took his oath of office during the Dec. 13 meeting.

After Carnevale pointed that out, Shinoff and Miller said they think that the board policy needs clarification.

Miller, who is also a lawyer, later accused Carnevale of misinterpreting the law concerning when Otero officially left the board. “Reading law and knowing law are two different things,” he said during the meeting.

“There is no conflict of interest per legal counsel on the contract itself,” Miller later told The San Diego Union-Tribune in an email. “This was well vetted and explained by legal counsel for the District.”

Shinoff and Miyashiro also argued that if they did not approve Otero’s no-bid contract, they could appear discriminatory on the basis of “individual affiliation,” according to Shinoff, or age, gender or “former political affiliation,” according to Miyashiro. Miyashiro said in an interview that it would show “prejudice” and “making decisions based on personal feelings.”

In his email, Miller suggested instead that Carnevale may be the one giving appearance of a conflict of interest, because Otero had been his opponent in the election he won.

“He’s making an issue out of a non-issue that seems very personal,” Miyashiro said of Carnevale.

At the most recent meeting, district officials lauded Otero’s work in the family and community engagement department, which she helped create in 2014. They credited her with obtaining grant money and helping to bring home students who had gotten stuck in Afghanistan after the U.S. military’s withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the district would otherwise likely have to spend $180,000 to $200,000 to hire a new employee to do the work Otero was doing, said Michelle Hayes, assistant superintendent of personnel. Officials said the district would not be able to immediately find somebody with Otero’s experience.

“I don’t think there can be any question as to the value that Tamara would add,” Miller said at the meeting.

Click here to read the full article in the SD Union Tribune


  1. Discussing how crooked people can be. She should walk away for the cities sake if she really cares. So should shifty Superintendent David Miyashiro for his sneaky suggestion.

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