Modesto councilman Gunderson resigns from school board

kcarlson@modbee.comDecember 6, 2011 

Hours before his first meeting as a Modesto city councilman Tuesday, John Gunderson submitted his resignation as a member of the Stanislaus Union School District board. The resignation letter was received by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, officials there confirmed.

City Councilman John Gunderson resigned Tuesday from the Stanislaus Union School District board, resolving a controversy over whether he could legally serve on that board and the council.

An official with the Stanislaus County Office of Education confirmed that Gunderson submitted his letter of resignation in the afternoon, just hours before his first council meeting. Gunderson also said he had informed the city attorney of his decision.

He released his letter to The Bee on Tuesday evening.

"While I believe I could be an effective and unbiased voice in both elected positions, I have chosen to resign my post on the school board," Gunderson wrote. "This will allow me to focus 100 percent of my attention on the needs of my constituents in Modesto City Council District 1."

The letter says he wished to assure the public that "I will not be placed in a position to choose between elected duties."

The 55-year-old substitute teacher expressed interest in staying on the Stanislaus Union board after learning that council members are not entitled to health benefits. Gunderson, who was elected to the council Nov. 8, has received insurance coverage through the school district.

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood informed him in April — when he pulled papers for the council election — that he may have to vacate the school board position if he were elected. A large portion of northwest Modesto lies within the school district.

Gunderson tried to resign during a closed session of the school board Nov. 28, but district officials said he needed to submit his resignation to the county office of education to comply with the state Election Code.

He reconsidered the decision and was sworn in as a councilman Nov. 29, then delayed making up his mind for a week.

State law prohibits elected officials from holding two public offices that share the same territory, if there are inherent conflicts between the offices. The attorney general's office tells candidates for office that simultaneous service on a school board and city council isn't allowed, based on prior legal opinions.

Gunderson, dressed in a blue Hawaiian shirt, didn't discuss his decision at Tuesday night's council meeting.

Councilman Dave Geer said after the meeting that he decided not to take sides.

"It was entirely up to him. I am not going to second guess anyone's decision on something that personal," Geer said. "He was under a lot of pressure and it was his decision to make."

Councilman Dave Lopez said, "I'm glad he made the decision and that he is going forward with it."

Lopez and Gunderson will be working together on the council's safety and communities subcommittee.

Gunderson said Stanislaus Union officials recently had discussed the legal issues with him. If he did not resign, a lawsuit could have been filed to attempt to remove him from the school board and there could have been an injunction to prevent him from voting until the case was resolved, he said he was told.

The school board board could talk about a process for filling Gunderson's vacated seat at its Dec. 15 meeting.

"I'm sad to be forced out in this manner," said Gunderson, referring to being in the media spotlight for 2½ weeks. "I think other people are sad to see me go, too. I love that school district."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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