Thursday, July 26, 2012

CCR 7-26-12: Legal Limbo

the   Controversial  Committee   Report
“We don’t raise sacred cows...we just butcher them.”
     Recently, three members of the Irving ISD board submitted a proposal to the entire board of trustees to consider moving toward hiring and utilizing in-house legal council.  Not only could, in all probability, in-house counsel save a ton of money, but the district wouldn’t be charged every time someone asked: WWJDD?

     The district currently pays for legal counsel on a contract basis with Jim Deatherage & Associates, and also contracts with outside legal firms for special additional services.

     As was expected, the Floundering Four (Huffstetler, V. Jones, Christian and Craig) shot the in-house legal proposal down.  Well, they might as well have shot it down.  Instead, the Floundering Four bloc-voted to form a ‘committee’ to study the issue.  The vote was 4-3 to kick the can down the road instead of performing their elected duties in a conscientious, fiscally responsible manner.

     Here are a few things staff of the CCR believes the Floundering Four should study while kicking the can down the road.  To put their review in context, the total cost of all legal services for the Irving ISD during the past three years amounted to:
2010 = $807,087  (Outside legal costs were $145,191 of this total)
2011 = $654,785  (Outside legal cost were $70,235 of this total)
2012 = $523,534  (Outside legal cost were $62,615 of this total. Note: Two months yet to be billed for all legal cost.)
     At the heart of the in-house vs. contracted counsel debate are the total legal expenditures for the amounts paid to Jim Deatherage & Associates.  In 2012 these billings shifted to Boyle & Lowry for all of Detherage’s services to the district.  The plan here appears to be to consider Boyle & Lowry assuming the legal retainer contract when Deatherage retires or his current agreement with the district expires in 2014.  The combined amounts billed by Deatherage and/or Boyle & Lowry based on the above figures were:
2010 = $661,896
2011 = $584,550
2012 = $460,919 (Note: two months yet to be billed for services.)
     A review by staff of the CCR of the detail billing information submitted for payment by the district’s legal counsel reflects what might be considered a few quirks, what the @#%*#’s, and other items a sane observer or tax payer probably might want to question.  For instance:
  1. At least $9,700 appears to have been spent on Open Record requests/research/study for the political operative of a sitting board member.  This was performed during the heat of a recent board election.  Should this board member consider reimbursing the district -- either personally or through a campaign fund -- at least $9,700 for this legal work?  After all, should tax payers be on the hook for apparent ‘opposition research’ of a sitting board member’s campaign?
  2. Can you hear me now?  It appears that just about anytime the superintendent, staff member or board member has the urge and calls the district’s legal counsel, the meter starts running.  And depending on the length of the call, serious charges could be incurred. ($100 for a short, recent board president’s call.)  If an e-mail is sent, the charges to read and respond actually escalate the time spent and charged.  Charges by the district’s legal counsel for reviewing e-mails, newspaper articles, case law, etc. on behalf of the superintendent or other staff members is based on $200/hour. 
  3. Charges billed reflecting a ‘conference’ (5-7-12) between the superintendent, a board member and lawyer should be re-reviewed.  The term conference as noted in the CCR’s dictionary infers that this would be a meeting of parties taking place.  The board member reflected in the charge states that this conference/meeting with him never took place.  Total billing for this ‘conference’ was $50.  Who is the district’s gatekeeper to monitor, review and approve all legal expenses?
  4. Two for the price of two?  There is so much detail in the monthly billing reports (20+ pages) that staff of the CCR wondered if we were sometimes afflicted with double vision.  Some particular headings for the same concern appear to have charges assessed by Deatherage and also Boyle & Lowry. (5-10-12, 5-17-12, etc.)  Were the legal complexities of these issues such that a second opinion was necessary?  Perhaps, there is a rational explanation for any of these possible occurrences.  We sure hope so.
  5. At this point, it might be best to reflect on one basic concept or lesson in primary civics.  Regarding the Irving ISD, the citizens vote and elect board members.  Board members hire the superintendent.  The superintendent basically runs the district following established board policies.  In a perfect world everyone would be the best of pals, things would go swimmingly, and any and all personality conflicts or issues could be resolved through open and honest communications.  Actually, all of this should be accomplished without the benefit of one party constantly seeking legal opinions to address what appears to be conflict resolution issues.
     In the detail legal billings to the district, there appears to be an inordinate amount of funds expended by the superintendent and board president to muzzle, hinder or possibly crush the questioning or actions of a singular board member by frequently seeking legal opinions or advice to bolster their position.  A review of billings indicates that over $22,000 has been spent on these wasteful exercises.  

Why is the Floundering Four stating they are attempting to control cost when, in fact, they seem to be attempting to restrict genuine questioning, debate and improvement of the district with this expensive ruse?  The board president even continued this trend of embarrassment by noting the board member's name on a posted committee meeting agenda (7-11-12).  Remember, these are tax payer bucks being spent here, not Monopoly money for elected officials to be playing political games.

     The spending of thousands of tax payer dollars on legal fees by the superintendent and Floundering Four in an attempt to discredit or bully a duly elected board member is, without a doubt, unconscionable. 

     Another factor that appears to be weaving through several of the details in the legal billings are specific charges attributable to superintendent requests.  Some of these charges might seem as if they could/should be provided by the superintendent’s personal counsel and not the district’s legal counsel. 

    The above are just a few of the anomalies cash strapped tax payers might find interesting or perhaps questionable when reviewing the detail charges for the district’s current legal services.  And sadly, the Floundering Four, as opined by Irving ISD board president Huffstetler, whose business acumen might not be stellar, want to continue in this tradition.

     When the Floundering Four gets around to reviewing the in-house proposal, wouldn’t it be advisable if they surveyed each school district in the north Texas area to see: 1) How their legal service requirements are met and paid; and 2) What is the total annual cost for these legal services sans special outside counsel considerations.
     While staff of the CCR doesn’t know what the exact cost of having an in-house attorney with a supporting staff member might be, we believe that even if the cost was $250,000/year the district would still be saving a considerable amount of tax payer funds.  An in-house attorney could also be the gatekeeping in keeping down cost by responding to everyday and often mundane queries by the superintendent and staff.  And any savings with an in-house attorney would also include determining the times that outside council was necessary or appropriate.

     Another critical factor to review regarding in-house legal services, that should be emphasized and understood by all, is that the in-house attorney would represent the district and serve at the pleasure of the trustees...not the superintendent.

     How many para-professionals or part-time instructors could be hired with the total savings on legal services by in-house representation?  By placing this money where it is best utilized --classroom instruction -- wouldn’t the “kids” really benefit?

     Oh, the Floundering Four will probably continue to crow about how they truly want to save tax payer bucks.  And they will even attempt to relate that all their actions and votes are just for the “kids” of the district.  (Should the “kids” ever be in trouble, then this group could assist in finding them legal services.  After all, this group has plenty of experience spending excessive amounts of tax payer funds on this item.)

     If the Floundering Four didn’t have so many crow feathers dripping from their mouths, then maybe their pronouncements might have a tinge of believability.  

     And the CCR assures readers with amazing ‘comfort’ that it isn’t going to charge the district for this last non-lawyer opinion that is free of ‘paranoia.’ 

Note:  This report exceeded the normal length of a CCR review.  Due to the volume of documents reviewed and additional documents to be requested, readers should consider this the 1st in a series of reports regarding the expenditure of Irving ISD funds for legal services.  There are still questions requiring answers or examinations regarding the inordinate amount spent by the Irving ISD for legal services.  The committee to stall rational discussion of in-house legal services, appointed by board president Huffstetler, will meet on August 1, 2012.