Attorney General Authorizes Suit

The California Attorney General issued an opinion granting permission for the filing of a lawsuit charging that a member of the Baldwin Park Unified School District board of trustees may not simultaneously hold the office of director of a public water district whose territory overlaps that of the school district (Opinion No. 04-904, November 8, 2004).
The doctrine of incompatibility of offices addresses the potential for divided loyalty that can occur when a person holds two public offices with overlapping jurisdiction.
Public offices are incompatible where the performance of the duties of either such office could have significant adverse effect on the other, such as where:

  • One office has supervisory, auditory or removal power over the other.
  • There is the potential for significant clash of duties or loyalties in the exercise of the official duties of the offices.
  • An actual conflict is not required, and only one potential clash of duties triggers the application of the doctrine.

The consequence of an incompatibility of office is generally that the person, upon accepting the second office, is deemed to have forfeited the first office.
The doctrine is typically enforced through a proceeding known as quo warranto. An interested member of the public can file this kind of proceeding, but must first obtain permission to do so from the California Attorney General’s office, which determines whether the application presents a substantial issue of fact or law requiring judicial resolution and would serve the overall public interest.
In the case reviewed by the Attorney General, a water district director was elected and then subsequently elected to a school board seat at Baldwin Unified. The two agencies’ jurisdictional boundaries overlapped. The Attorney General reviewed the statutory duties of a water district (sale of water, restriction of supply during shortages, improvement of infrastructure) and noted that a potential for a significant clash of loyalties existed, since a large portion of the school district’s water was supplied by the water district. The opinion, which granted permission to sue in quo warranto stated, “In such circumstances, a person sitting on the governing board of both districts would have divided loyalties in acting in the best interests of the water seller and water purchaser.”
Other examples of offices held to be incompatible include the offices of school board member and planning commission member (where territories overlapped), and county board of education member and State Board of Education member.
If you have any questions concerning this opinion or similar issues, please call our office.