So IA wonders: How did the Santa Clara County Office of Education keep secret for so long the nearly $200,000 in penalties it paid to the IRS for late payroll taxes?

It appears that outgoing Superintendent Xavier De La Torre and his finance staff didn't let the bosses know until Feb. 5, or 2 ½ months after the IRS sent the first notice of 11 delinquent tax remittances dating back to the third quarter of 2010. Then De La Torre and Chief Business Officer Micaela Ochoa took the largest fine -- $174,090.80 -- to the Santa Clara County Board of Education in closed session.

The rationale for discussing the penalty behind closed doors? Potential litigation, office spokesman Ken Blackstone said.

"The SCCCOE is not in agreement with the IRS' determination," Blackstone wrote in an email, "and is exploring its legal options."

Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition, a government watchdog group, said that yes, the "litigation" exemption includes administrative procedures, and thus presumably IRS appeals.

Had the board voted to approve paying the $174,090.80 penalty, it would have had to report that decision publicly. But the administration made the decision to pay it, and simply informed the board in closed session, Blackstone said, avoiding that requirement. The office paid 10 lesser IRS penalties in December.


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Darcie Green, the board's vice president, confirmed that the board discussed the IRS fines and legal options, and that the office paid the penalty to avoid additional penalties and interest.

Open space district confident it can win approval for tax hike

Conventional wisdom -- and a fair bit of data from past elections -- says that the kind of people who vote in off-year, low-turnout elections tend to be older and more penny-pinching than the general public.

So why is one of the Bay Area's biggest open space agencies asking the public for a tax increase to pay for environmental goodies on the June 3 ballot? The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is rolling the dice on a $300 million bond measure that would allow it to buy more parkland, build trails and open up more of its preserves to hikers, bicyclists and horse riders in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

But it needs a two-thirds majority -- a margin always hard to get, particularly from a primary electorate heavy with retired voters.

The district has internally polled the measure, which would raise property taxes $3.18 a year per $100,000 of assessed value, and it has received 77 percent support. The agency, based in Los Altos, is hoping that environmental groups, who plan to spend $1 million on radio and direct mail ads, can push back expected opposition from taxpayer groups. And it hopes that with a sparse June 3 ballot, with primary candidates for governor and not much else, a measure asking for money may fare better.

"A June ballot is not really cluttered, so the issues will be clear," said district General Manager Steve Abbors.

Voters in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties have a history of supporting environmental measures. The two counties were among only 11 of California's 58 counties to vote yes on Proposition 21, a statewide ballot measure in 2010 that would have raised vehicle registration fees $18 for state parks, for example.

And most voters here can afford it, says San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston.

"Their district is a fairly affluent area," he said. "It seems to me the logic is that we have a very high-income, socially aware electorate participating now. And there will be nothing else on the ballot asking for money. That helps."

Half Moon Bay manager cites family reasons for taking Napa County job

When Half Moon Bay last month announced the resignation of City Manager Laura Snideman, it was inevitable that eyebrows would arch in skepticism.

Snideman cited "family considerations" as the main factor in her decision. She was taking an unspecified executive position with Napa County. However, Snideman insists this is the rare case where a departing public official's wish to spend more time with family is not an obfuscatory fib but the plain, hard truth.

"I have had to make a very difficult personal decision, and really have many reasons I'd like to stay," she said. "But I will regret not taking an opportunity to both use my skills for Napa County and to help my aging parents."

Snideman joined Half Moon Bay four years ago and became city manager in 2010. She helped bring the quiet coastal city out of fiscal calamity wreaked by the recession and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

Mayor John Muller praised Snideman, who brought stability to the city manager's office after a decade of turmoil and turnover, as "amazing." The city, Muller said Thursday, is in much better shape now than when she arrived.

"She's making a personal sacrifice on her career to take care of family issues," Muller said.

Snideman departs March 19 to become the executive officer for Napa County's Local Agency Formation Commission.

Retired military group urges schools to make water a priority for kids

Terrorists and nuclear weapons frequently are described as threats to national security, but a new report released last week names a new adversary for the U.S. military -- soda.

Today, three-quarters of all young Americans are ineligible for military service because they're overweight or obese, and consumption of sugary drinks is a leading cause of obesity among children and adults, according to the report by Mission Readiness, a nonpartisan group of retired military officials.

Retired Brig. Gen. David Brahms, a member of Mission Readiness, said California students should drink more water, not soda.

"It is mission critical," he said. "We know that our military forces perform best when they are properly hydrated. It should be the same for California schools: top priority."

And despite state and federal regulations requiring schools to provide free, clean drinking water to students during school mealtimes, one study found that one in every four California schools does not provide water to students where food is served. The Central Valley region is where researchers see the highest rates of soda consumption among young people.

"In many parts of the region, students struggle to access clean drinking water throughout their school day," said Lourdes Perez, a Ceres Unified School District board member.

The report recommends that schools and community centers build hydration stations and water dispensers to increase water consumption and ease that national security issue.

Internal Affairs is an offbeat look at local and state politics. This week's items were written by Sharon Noguchi, Paul Rogers, Aaron Kinney and Jessica Calefati. Send tips to internalaffairs@mercurynews.com, or call 408-920-5782.