OTHER\BOARD COMMENTS from the October 12, 2009 Business Meeting
Dr. Eugene Walker, Board Member, District 9, made the following comments:
I ask your indulgence as I offer some response to many of the unflattering comments made at the last Board Meeting.
I am appalled and offended by the provocative, demeaning and degrading words spoken at the last Board Meeting. The speakers’ pseudo egalitarian attempt at being unbiased was unmasked when they wantonly and without provocation used derogatory and inflammatory descriptive terms to defame persons of the past who stood up for equal justice.
Remember, dinosaurs have been extinct and nonexistent for millions of years. However, the fight for equality in America, whether it be for race, sex, religion or creed is and will continue to be an ongoing battle. A color blind society we are not. The mere fact that we have engaged in this dialogue and debate reflects this. At the same time, though, the racial and ethnic insensitivity of those board members who claimed the “race card” was being played is both baffling and void of logic.
Let’s be clear here. It was not an imagined agenda when the Board, without any research or assessment, broke ranks with a practice that had been in place from the Weekes & Candler days as school system attorney and made the unprecedented move to request the proposal for a sole vendor. Historically, Weekes and Candler served as General Counsel to the Board. The Board allowed the firm to hire other law firms to handle matters in various specialty areas of the law. When Ms. Alexander became Co-General Counsel and subsequently General Counsel, this practice of hiring law firms that specialized in certain areas continued. In fact, this practice continued under several different Superintendents – Dr. Freeman, Dr. Hallford, Dr. Brown and Dr. Lewis. Again, in my opinion, when the Board made this arbitrary move to seek a large firm as sole vendor this automatically meant Alexander & Associates could not qualify. When this crystal clear situation occurred I did not have to play the “race card” because the actions of my fellow board members is what made race the central issue. If this was not an act of discrimination I don’t know what is.
I was also accused of questioning the ethics and making scurrilous and irresponsible statements about our new General Counsel. Just a few weeks ago, this Board allowed the majority law firm to submit a bid for all of the legal work of the School District without asking the minority law firm to submit a bid for the same work. This was after the Board officially voted and specifically carved out the areas it wanted Sutherland to negotiate with the Superintendent and the areas Alexander & Associates was to negotiate with the Superintendent. The Board awarded General Counsel Services to Sutherland, and Human Resources, Fair Dismissal Hearings and Workers’ Compensation to Alexander & Associates. The Board then directed each firm to negotiate a flat fee according to the areas allocated to each firm.
Sutherland, without solicitation from the Board submitted two bids, one of which included the work awarded to Alexander & Associates. Alexander & Associates did not get the opportunity to bid on all legal work. Therefore, how could any Board Member say that they wanted to save the School District money, when we don’t know how much money the School District would have saved because Alexander & Associates was not allowed to bid on all of the work. Sutherland’s action was, in my opinion, not only unethical; it was unfair and placed Alexander & Associates at a huge disadvantage.
Fellow Board Members, I am not offended about your rights to say what you said. I am offended about the way you attacked those who feel and speak differently from your thoughts and feelings. I am offended that you espouse a culture of color blindness, yet your rhetoric reveals the deep resentment you have for African American inclusion. I am offended that your accusatory diatribe was aimed specifically at those African-American Board Members who spoke out for a black law firm on the grounds of diversity and inclusion. While at the same time, there were Board Members who fought just as hard and spoke just as forcefully for the white law firm. Equality is a term that does not lend itself to what is convenient or expeditious. It requires balance and fairness.
Well, he pretty well confused me. What point is he trying to make, exactly? If someone can parse this for me, I would appreciate it.
And for further clarity on the subject - here are minutes from the Sept 28th meeting -
Mr. Bowen noted that the sole purpose of this meeting was to receive information from the Superintendent, as requested by the Board in a previous meeting, regarding the Flat Rate Fee Proposal for Legal Services. He reminded the Board that during the August 28, 2009 called meeting, fee proposals were submitted by Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates, for services in their respective areas of assignment. At that time, the Board asked the Superintendent to meet with both firms to request a reduction of fees and to bring back a reduced proposal from both firms.
Dr. Lewis reaffirmed that during the called meeting on Friday, August 28, 2009, the Board of Education charged him with moving forward to begin negotiations of flat rate fees with the newly appointed General Counsel – Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander and Associates. He also reaffirmed that both firms had previously submitted their proposed flat rate fees, however, given the current financial challenges of the school district, the Board felt that both firms’ proposed fees were too high. Dr. Lewis stated that during the negotiation period, he spoke with both firms individually to talk about their flat rate fees and the Board’s objective to save money given the current state of the economy and budget challenges. During those discussions, each firm was provided with a copy of the school district’s legal fees from the past two fiscal years, as well as fees for the immediate past calendar year, which averaged approximately $3 - $3.2 million dollars. Dr. Lewis concluded that both firms - Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates have now submitted their final flat rate fee proposals for the Board’s consideration.
Mr. Womack moved to accept the sole source bid of $1.7million from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. The motion was seconded by Mr. McChesney.
After concerns were expressed by several Board Members, .... Discussions ensued.
Dr. Walker questioned if any of the legal fees paid during the past two years include monies paid for any current complex litigation, (i.e. the Dunaire case, Heery Mitchell or action recently taken against the DeKalb Development Authority). Mr. Turk responded, “no.”
Ms. Roberts asked for clarification as to how Workers’ Compensation cases are handled? And, at what point are the cases referred to General Counsel. Mr. Turk stated that an employee in the Department of Risk Management handles all Workers’ Compensation cases. He concluded by saying that if a case cannot be resolved internally and requires litigation, then it is referred to General Counsel.
Dr. Walker asked who is Drew, Eckl & Farnham. Mr. Turk responded that this is the firm that Workers’ Compensation cases are currently referred to once the case goes to litigation.
Mr. Redovian requested clarification on the motion made by Mr. Womack.
Mr. Womack moved to accept the $1.7million from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan as sole source General Counsel for all legal services, with the exception of complex litigation. Mr. McChesney seconded the motion.
Mr. Cunningham vehemently expressed concern with eliminating Alexander & Associates after the Board had previously voted to retain their services for specific assigned areas of legal services. He stated that Alexander & Associates had not been given an opportunity to provide a sole source bid and that unless both firms were afforded the same opportunity, a sole source bid should not be accepted from Sutherland. Dr. Walker echoed this sentiment.
Mr. Bowen clarified what choices the Board has at its disposal. He noted that the Board can choose to accept or reject Mr. Womack’s motion, and if the Board does not accept Mr. Womack’s motion, then the Board can go back to the original recommendation from the Superintendent to consider the proposals submitted by both firms.
Mr. Cunningham suggested an amended motion. He moved that the Board accept and approve $1.7million for services from both Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates. Mr. Cunningham noted that if the fee rate of $1.7 million does not work for both firms, then the Board should re-direct the Superintendent to go back and re-negotiate the flat rate fee with both firms. Dr. Walker seconded the amended motion.
Mr. Redovian reminded the Board that during the last meeting on legal services, he inquired if the Board was voting on firms and fees. He stated that the response from the Chair indicated firms only. Mr. Cunningham reiterated that it was also his understanding that no dollar amount had been provided to either firm or to the Superintendent to work with. Mr. Bowen reminded the Board that the Request for Qualifications was for qualifications only and that the RFQ did not require any of the firms to include cost for legal services in their responses.
Dr. Lewis stated that the Board had charged him with negotiating the flat rate fee with both firms and agreed that no specific dollar amount to work with had been given to him or to either firm. He also stated that he was only asked to come back with a recommendation that provided a cost savings to the District.
... Mr. Womack moved to end discussion and call the question. Mr. Redovian seconded the motion, and with a 3\6 vote, with Mr. McChesney, Mr. Womack and Mr. Redovian voting yes; and Dr. Walker, Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Bowen, Ms. Copelin-Wood and Dr. Speaks voting no, the motion failed. ... Discussions ensued.
Dr. Walker again expressed opposition with moving forward and not providing Alexander & Associates an opportunity to submit a sole source bid. He asked that no action be taken at this time and tabled for a future meeting.
Mr. Redovian expressed concern with and opposed accepting bids from both firms that could possibly total more than the lowest bid submitted. Mr. McChesney agreed.
Ms. Roberts stated that the Board should consider accepting or rejecting the bids from both firms in the amount of $2.4 million. She asked what would be the total savings if both bids were accepted. Dr. Lewis stated that it would be a savings of $1.3 million if the Board voted on a 10-month contract or a savings of $600,000 if the Board voted on a 12-month contract. Ms. Roberts stated that either would be less than what the District paid in the last year for all legal services. Ms. Copelin-Wood inquired as to what firm currently handles Special Education cases? Dr. Lewis stated that Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan are now handling Special Education cases. He further stated that a transition recommendation on all cases previously handled by other firms has been submitted by Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan for consideration. Ms. Copelin-Wood also inquired as to whether legal fees for Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan would be negotiated at the conclusion of this contractual period. Dr. Lewis answered yes; fees would be negotiated for both firms at this end of the contractual period.
Ms. Copelin-Wood asked that Mr. Cunningham’s motion be repeated. Mr. Bowen stated that Mr. Cunningham moved that the Board accept and approve $1.7million for services for both Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates. Mr. Cunningham also noted that if this fee rate does not work for both firms, then the Board should re-direct the Superintendent to go back and re-negotiate the flat rate fee with both firms. Mr. Bowen stated that Dr. Walker seconded the amended motion. Mr. Bowen also repeated the original motion made by Mr. Womack – that the Board accepts the $1.7million from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan as sole source General Counsel for all legal services with the exception of complex litigation. Mr. McChesney seconded the motion.
Ms. Copelin-Wood inquired as to whether we had data to show what other school districts are paying for legal services. Dr. Lewis answered, “no.” Ms. Copelin-Wood also expressed concern with the motion made by Mr. Womack to eliminate Alexander & Associates as Board Counsel. She also stated that the Board had already voted to retain the services of both firms, and she believes that the motion presented by Mr. Womack now undermines action previously taken by the Board.
Ms. Roberts stated that good legal representation is not cheap. She further stated that if both of the motions on the floor should fail, the Board should consider and vote to approve the $2.4 million submitted by both firms. Ms. Roberts also inquired as to what the Board should anticipate from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan in terms of fees for the next year. Dr. Lewis stated that he could not predict if there would be a fee increase from either of the firms.
Dr. Speaks also inquired as to whether the Board should expect an increase in fees from both firms for the next year. Mr. Bowen stated that fees would be re-negotiated for legal services, regardless of who the providers would be.
Mr. Cunningham reminded the Board that the initial recommendation of the Legal Ad Hoc Committee suggested that the Board should re-evaluate the legal services and determine if changes would be necessary after a two-year period.
Dr. Walker stated that he felt Mr. Womack’s motion was out of order and not consistent with the directive of the Board to the Superintendent. He asked that the motion be withdrawn.
After a brief dialogue, Mr. Bowen called the question on the amended motion made by Mr. Cunningham.
With a vote of 6\3, with Dr. Walker, Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Bowen, Ms. Copelin-Wood and Mr. Redovian voting yes; and Mr. McChesney, Mr. Womack and Dr. Speaks voting no, the amended motion passed.
Then, the fireworks really began. Apparently this discussion turned on a very emotional, racial note, culminating in what we watched at the Oct 5 meeting
We discussed that meeting here on the blog - you can also watch it here -
DeKalb Schools WMV
So what was Womack's reason for pushing the original motion? And was that why Walker opposed it, just because Womack made it?
What about Latino inclusion?
Does Dr. Walker have some interest in Alexander and Associates?
Sutherland is a high-powered firm with tons of expertise and, I would hope, many minority attorneys. Does Alexander have that expertise?
The board probably needs to hire and maintain its own legal staff. Hire one or two good attorneys and allow them to build a staff. Get rid of a few figurehead administrators to free up the salary money. Complex stuff can be referred out.
This would be much less expensive than the millions in legal fees they pay.
I can't believe Lewis didn't know or never bothered to research what other districts were paying for legal services!!!!
Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, lead counsel at Sutherland is an African American just like Jose Alexander. The race card needs to be put back into the deck for another time.
In-house legal department!
Sutherland employs a whole lot more african americans, latinos, hispanics, middle easterners, etc. than Alexander and Associates. Dr. Walker should be thrilled with the selection if his intent is to provide more dollars to minorities. Hmmm... what then is his intent??
Dr. Walker probably hears the name Sutherland Asbill and sees a silk-stocking, waspy law firm, without looking at the facts. I would hate to think that it is anything more nefarious than that (although that is bad enough).
Duplicating info from another thread - this is important to consider when pondering legal costs. I wonder if they've ever investigated the cost of starting their own in-house dept... wonder if we'd save much???
Consider this info from today's AJC -
"State revenues in Georgia continue to plummet"
GA's revenue collections fell another 18% in October compared to last year. Individual income taxes fell from $722.5 million down to $610.57 million. Even worse, corporate tax revenues dropped from $23.55 million down to $4.9 million. Sales and use is down to $397.96 million from $486.74 million. Average drop in total is 15.5%
The fiscal year (July 1- Oct 31) will end with overall tax collections down from $5.49 billion in 08 to $4.65 billion in 09.
Schools will need to brace themselves for BIG cut backs in August 2010. ANYTHING and EVERYTHING should be reassessed and streamlined to prepare for what will certainly be an historic budget cut.
It is also about warm fuzzies and knowing the attorney and the attorney doing favors for the school board members. You scratch my back and I will scratch your back.
It also has to do with keeping money in Dekalb County verses a big firm in Atlanta.
It is my understanding that Alexander and Associates did not rate very high on quality of services when the team actually looked at the services and quality of the services provided. Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan rated very high in provided adequate services and quality of the firm. This was a big issue as far as quality of services. It was not just about race. It was about qualifications as a law firm.
Mr. Walker is correct. This however was not one sided as far as racial issues. Others may have had racial agendas.
To clarify for you fedupindcss, Dr. Walker in this speech, is referring to another board member who stated at the Oct 5th meeting that a "civil rights dinosaur" was pushing this agenda behind the scenes. Most people thought this comment was directed at John Evans, who had shown up outside on of the committee meetings on this subject.
The link above to our previous conversation on the Oct 5 meeting has more detail in the comments.
"The speakers’ pseudo egalitarian attempt at being unbiased was unmasked when they wantonly and without provocation used derogatory and inflammatory descriptive terms to defame persons of the past who stood up for equal justice."
Oh, this is where he tries to stand up for former county commissioner John Evans, the convicted felon, who injects race into every single topic possible even when race has nothing to do with the topic, and has more than anyone else in theis county contributed to the North-South DeKalb divide. Funny how this "equal justice" person John Evans has never stood up for Latino's, Asians, etc. its apropo that Walker mentions dinosaurs in the same speech as John Evans, because Evans is a dinosaur of a past era with no clout left in the 21st century.
Hey Gene Walker, I sleep better at night knowing you're just going to serve one term before you're creamed in the next election (unless Florida-based Sembler and its ultar-conservative Republican owner Mel Sembler come to your rescue and throw campaign cash at you again).
So let me get this straight, DCSS has been spending outrageous amounts of legal fees, and parents and taxpayers are tired of the millions, like the $14 mil in legal fees for the Heery suit, so finally, the BOE looks at making some changes so we're not wasting millions.
But Walker's argument against it is saying it's been done one way for years and that's that? Weak, Gene, just weak.
We can not seriously consider an in house legal when we already complain about bloated admininstration and too many people in buidling B. Maybe we should hire some farmers and grow all our own food too.
Any lawyer who would work for a school system salary would either be someone who could afford to be altruistic or someone who wouldn't have the experience and expertise needed. Chances are we would get a young lawyer who was out of their league. I expect the highly competent altruistic ones will be hard to find.
I think what Dr. Walker is missing is that he spoke out for one law firm BECAUSE it is "black" whereas others spoke for a second law firm that is (in his estimation) "white" but not because it is "white."
Shouldn't we be choosing a law firm based on cost, expertise, etc. and not on skin color?
I'm curious. I think - but I'm not certain - that the attorneys for the Heery suit may be coming from SPLOST tax dollars - not the general budget. Anyone knnow?
Also - we must consider the random mis-use of hiring outside counsel. The board is currently arguing over a $1.7-$2.4 million contract, however, one special case, like the Herrera case - and Lewis spent $400,000 on one legal counsel - Judge Moore. That's about 1/4 of the entire legal budget. Which pile of money did that one come from? Did it make us go over on our legal budget? Do we have an additional fund to pull from for special cases? (Akin to a contingency fund in construction?)
They didn't discuss these things. This discussion is just about regular, everyday legal expenses. Who determines when to hire outside counsel and who that counsel is and how much we have to spend on it? It's a wild card - and really, makes this discussion almost moot.
This is the quoted comment made by Don McChesney that has Dr. Walker's guard up.
I've watched the civil rights dinosaurs come to our meetings to divide, coerce and intimidate some of our board members. They have only one agenda - to divide and cloud the issues and center the fight on some imagined racist agenda. Those days are gone.
That is of course, taken out of context, so you would be wise to visit our Oct 5 link and read all of the board comments - we transcribed them in the comment section near the bottom.
However, that said, this comment actually was out of line and unnecessary. Say what you will about John Evans being a criminal (for accepting bribes - not for a violent crime) - he was a civil rights leader and is respected by African-Americans in Walker's generation. There was no purpose in demeaning him like that - in a prepared statement no less. Don should have run that one by several people before saying it out loud for the world to hear. Some things are very hurtful once said, and now, he has provided a pivot point from which to veer off into a racial discussion, rather that stay on the topic at hand, which is the legal representation.
I think Dr. Walker's point is valid, actually. At first, there was a plan to have the new general counsel handle certain areas of legal work and Alexander was assigned other areas. But then, as Walker states,
The Board awarded General Counsel Services to Sutherland, and Human Resources, Fair Dismissal Hearings and Workers’ Compensation to Alexander & Associates. The Board then directed each firm to negotiate a flat fee according to the areas allocated to each firm. Sutherland, without solicitation from the Board submitted two bids, one of which included the work awarded to Alexander & Associates. Alexander & Associates did not get the opportunity to bid on all legal work. Therefore, how could any Board Member say that they wanted to save the School District money, when we don’t know how much money the School District would have saved because Alexander & Associates was not allowed to bid on all of the work. Sutherland’s action was, in my opinion, not only unethical; it was unfair and placed Alexander & Associates at a huge disadvantage.
The board apparently turned on its heels and decided that they needed to go with Sutherland's suggestion and hire them to handle all of the school system's business. The reasons were unclear, except that they thought this would save money. Somehow, the requirements they were seeking in new representation were such that Alexander could not bid (their firm is too small, I believe). So Alexander was effectively squeezed out and never even asked to bid on the same type of contract.
Dr. Walker saw this as a racially motivated move, but I really didn't see it as such. Then again, as he pointed out about himself, he sees in color - and he has a lifelong history of being discriminated against so he's on guard. It's all in your perception, really. Personally, I only saw this as an opportunity to save money and possibly get better representation - just a basic business decision. But then again, I'm not sensitized to color like Gene Walker. When I try to view this situation through his eyes, I can see what he's talking about. There seems to be some unfairness as to how this new scope of services came about - however, I still think it really at it's core was not a racial move - just a fiscal one.
The best thing would have been to create a RFP and asked several firms to bid, including Alexander -- and make the decision just like they do with the construction contractors - "most responsive, responsible bidder with the best price, etc..."
This was kind of handled in an end-game runaround kind of way apparently and then when it was perceived as racially motivated, the people who voiced opposition were shushed.
We all need to try harder to work together and really see other people's perspectives. The race issue is very much alive today and must really be dealt with head on and with honesty. If someone perceives an action as a racially-motivated one, that should be dealt with respectfully, not simply brushed aside.
"Say what you will about John Evans being a criminal (for accepting bribes - not for a violent crime)"
It's more than that. He was an elected office who broke the law. And more importantly, he was DeKalb County's first black county commissioner. He absolutely broke the public's trust. Ethics are important, especially for an elected official. Evans just doesn't have any clout.
Maybe Gene Walker is so sympathetic to Evans because he accepted over $21,000 in campaign contributions from one source. That amount is unheard of in Georgia history for a board of education post. Walker was blasted by the public and press, but he deserved it with his cavalier attitude about serving on both the DeKalb Development Authority and the BOE, not taking seriously the incredible conflict of interest.
Evans and Walker are relics of the past, and they can't let go of what happened in this county in the 1950's, 60's, and 70's. And Paul Womack is no better. Womack can't let the past go and plan for the future.
He and McChesney are both obsessed with brining back their beloved Briarcliff High School, whether it makes sense or not, while they both ignore existing facilities like Cross Keys, Sequoyah, Lakeside, etc.
It's sad that we could have people like Ernest Brown and Shayna and one day hopefully Kim Gokce serving on the BOE. There are too many other qualified leaders in DeKalb, whether black, white, Latino, Asian, etc., for us to be stuck with dinosaurs like Walker, Womack and still wannabe relevant John Evans.
It's all coming together in my memory now.
I refer you to the Jan. 6, 2009 Work Session of the BOE at Henderson Middle School. It was Womack's first meeting as a newly elected BOE member. You may recall he graciously suggested the BOE members give up a portion of their pay to stand in solidarity to the teachers for their pay cuts. Walker, Roberts and Copelin-Wood jumped all over that. And Womack was hung out to dry. I refer you to the point 1 hour and 24 minutes into the video (on the DCSS website) of that meeting when Jose Alexander stands up to suggest Womack rephrase his motion. Instead of thanking her for clarifying, he said, "The next time I ask for something, I want it right..." jabbing his finger in the air toward her and turning his mouth down in an angry grimace. I recall it was a very tense moment -- and the one at which I saw our district screwed for the rest of Womack's term. He looked and sounded like an 1860s plantation owner. I was stunned, I can't imagine what Ms. Alexander was thinking.
McChensey has been described as vindictive. I suspect Womack is vindictive and then some. What better way to get back at Alexander for publically humiliating (in his mind) him, than try to throw her off the gravy train?
The problem with Alexander was qualifications. The ratings did not come back high on Alexander when the school system had a system for looking and evaluating counsel to select a counsel.
The committee did not think Alexander was the best for the job. The committee that did the research felt that Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan were much more qualified and could handled more areas and not have to send out the business to other lawyers which would save the school system a great deal of money. The committee who evaluated the candidates did not recommend Alexander as a candidate and this was when all the problems started. The recommendation and motion was made just for Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan because of the recommendations that came from the committee.
A DeKalb County lawmaker is proposing a crackdown on ethics in the county school system.
Rep. Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta) said he will sponsor legislation creating new ethical rules for the DeKalb School System. The north DeKalb legislator said in a news release that he was prompted by an episode this year when a school board member who served concurrently on the DeKalb Development Authority was prepared to cast a vote that "presented a potential conflict of interest" between his duties to each body.
Levitas didn't name names, but in August school board member Eugene Walker resigned from the chairmanship of the development authority. He was slated to vote on a tax break for a developer who had given money to his school board election campaign the year before.
Walker said Thursday that the school system already has an ethics policy and that he didn’t' violate it. He said he disclosed all the contributions, which is why Levitas and others knew about them. Levitas said he wanted to clarify "ill-defined" guidelines and give school board members "a clear set of principles" to follow.
Way to go, Kevin! We really need stricter guidelines for board members. For example, Walker is telling the truth when he says he published his contributions - however - he actually didn't publish them until after the election. Semantics.
No--ethics guidelines are useless. What we need in this case should already be written in law. Should read: No finance authority board member can hold elected positions--anywhere. It's that simple and there can be no justification for it to be otherwise.
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