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BOE Member Questions Legal Fees
Tuesday, 05 May 2009

May 5--  A Montgomery County school board member says she will continue to voice her opinion and ask questions in "open session" of school board meetings.

Deloris James of Alston read a statement to Monday night's board meeting in response to a letter she and other board members received from board attorney Tom Everett.  Everett said he sent the letter "to avoid public gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair" when the board reviewed his March bill which totaled $15,750.  The school system has paid Everett more than $40,000 since last October.

He claimed to have spent about half of his time in March on board matters including depositions in the now dismissed Fabian Pineda lawsuit and open records requests regarding the expenditure of sales tax revenue by School Superintendent Dr. Lynn Batten. 

Among those deposed in the Pineda case was James' husband, Dale, who unsuccessfully sued the school board two years ago, but was able to change board procedures regarding public participation in board meetings. 

James voted against paying Everett's March bill saying "it is past time to cut legal expenses."  She also asked for written documentation which allows the board attorney to pay for his health insurance through the school system.  She claims such a practice is illegal absent a written agreement which she asked be provided at the board's June meeting if it exists.  The school superintendent says he is not aware of any such agreement even though the practice has been going on for years, according to Everett.

 Attorney Everett's Letter

Dear Board Members,

This month has been extremely quiet with regards to our final civil action pending in federal court, filed by Chris Bowman. Mr. Bowman's attorneys had initially scheduled a battery of depositions for this month, but cancelled the same immediately following the dismissal of the Fabien Pineda suit. I do not currently know if the dismissal of one suit has affected the progress of another, but there has been very little activity in the Bowman case since the beginning of the month and there appears to be nothing planned in the coming weeks.

In anticipation of our upcoming meeting I decided to write to each of you and forward a copy of my March 2009 bill to the school system. I have done so in an effort to avoid the public gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair that I have expected, upon a review of this bill in the monthly accounts payable. While such a reaction may have some entertainment value to the audience at a meeting, I frankly would rather avoid the episode, if possible.

March of 2009 was one of those rare months in my service as Montgomery County School System attorney that I literally felt as though I spent half of my working hours dealing with some form of school-related matter. Not surprisingly, when I totaled my time for the month and prepared my bill, I did find that I had spent approximately one-half of my time working on school-related matters. I have enclosed a copy of my bill with this letter, for you to review in detail.

The month of March 2009 was filled with numerous depositions of witnesses regarding the Fabien Pineda case, as well as several Open Records Act requests from Kathy Bradford from the Advance and Lynn Batten and I spent some time formulating modifications to next year's employee contracts, due to the uncertainty of our future funding levels from the State of Georgia. As a result of these matters the school district was the recipient of my highest monthly bill to date.

While I can appreciate the concern such a bill would cause, I can state with some confidence that I suspect that the expense of litigation will soon be at an end and this level of expense is not likely to be repeated on any form of regular basis, barring another crisis or future litigation.

In an effort to provide you with some information about the attorney's fees paid by the Montgomery County School System I have listed below a summary of my expenses with the school system for the last six months:

October 2008                                   $ 4,350.00

November 2008                                $ 6,795.00

December 2008                                $ 6,405.00

January 2009                                     $ 3,585.00

February 2009                                  $ 3,450.00

March 2009                                      $15,750.00

The month of April of 2009 is about complete and I would expect that my bill to the school system will be under $2,000.00 for the month. I did expend some time early in the month concerning the Bowman suit, but the remainder of April has been routine, with school officials requesting some assistance from me regarding personnel, student, and student handbook issues. When our pending litigation is completed I foresee my expenses returning to "normal", which historically were in the $1,000.00 to $1,500.00 a month range, depending upon what form of student or personnel issues surface during any given month.

I realize that many in the community may have speculated that I have thoroughly enjoyed the past year or two as school system attorney and that I must be laughing on the way to the bank each month. The reality is that this entire episode has been generally stressful and unpleasant for me, although I try not to let others see any negative effects. Historically, my practice has been focused away from conflict and my legal work rarely created dissent from anyone in the public. However, my service to the school system in the last two years has placed me front and center in several personnel conflicts and legal controversies and I have undoubtedly lost some clients due to my representation of the Montgomery County School System and I am certain that there are citizens in the community who hold a negative view of me, due to my representation of our school system. I am not complaining about that fact or asking anyone for sympathy, for I understand that the nature of my work does not always lend itself to universal approval.

.

I would ask that if any of you have any questions or concerns regarding any of my prior expenses to the school system that you grant me the courtesy of contacting me about the matter prior to our upcoming meeting. I am happy to discuss this or any other matter with all of you at any/time.

                                                                                    Tom Everett

Board Member James Comments at Meeting

In the past months when I've asked questions relative to "Accounts Payable"  I was not attempting to entertain the audience.  My questions were valid.  720 voters sent me here to represent the Alston-Higgston district.  I can best represent the electorate if I am well informed.  When I ask a question, it is for my edification; therefore, I can answer my constituents' questions, whether I agree with the answer or not.

It appears that I've made at least one person uncomfortable if not angry.  This is the peoples' business.  I, too, surely want to avoid "the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair." However, I will continue to ask questions and expect answers.  As to giving someone the courtesy of explaining "accounts payable" prior to the BOE meeting, that tends to lend itself to the look of impropriety.  I will not be a participant in trying to hide any action or expenditure from the public including a $15,750.00 legal bill for March.  In my opinion, this legal bill is unjustified.  My fellow board members, we've cut employee salaries, it is past time to cut legal expenses.

I will not be intimidated.

I will voice my opinions.

I will ask questions.

 And I will do so in "Open Session."

Deloris James

 
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