By BROOKE STEVENSON
Sunday Times Newspapers
WYANDOTTE — The recent decision by the Wyandotte Public Schools Board of Education to hire its own legal counsel caught criticism during Tuesday’s meeting.
The district already has spent $48,000 of the $60,000 legal budget for the year on the current firms, Thrun Law Firm and Clark Hill PLC. The board’s Jan. 20 vote authorized $10,000 of the remaining budget for new counsel for members, separate from that of the district. The Jan. 20 vote was 4-2 to hire separate counsel, with President Robert Kirby, Vice President Kevin Van Boxell, Treasurer Dana Browning and Trustee Jerry Kupser voting in favor and Trustee Michael Swiecki and Secretary Michael Peters voted against.
Trustee Kathy Bedikian was on a trip to Washington, D.C., with the Roosevelt High School marching band and could not attend the meeting. Since then, however, she has voiced her disapproval of the decision.
So have residents and opposing board members, who question not only the additional money, but the way the decision was brought up and then passed.
“No argument has been able to convince me that separate, private and publicly funded legal counsel is needed for the Board of Education,” said resident Jacob Stoneburner in a letter to the board.
He believes the motion was brought forth at an inopportune time for the public, especially while one board member was out of state.
“One of the most controversial and important motions in recent memory was made on a night when those most apt to speak out were not present,” Stoneburner said. “How very interesting indeed.”
On Monday, he and some residents voiced displeasure at what they called a lack of discussion and reasoning behind the motion.
“I was under the impression that the legal staff of the district were meant to meet the legal needs of the district, and the students as a whole,” he said, “not individual board members
“I find this split that has now become oh-so-commonplace quite curious. Why else but for control and intimidation would a board majority enlist a lawyer — at the public’s expense — to be present at all meetings?”
Stoneburner then urged the board to reverse the decision, which he believes has done more harm than good.
Resident Bob Zang also said the board should re-evaluate the decision and wondered Monday whose interests the new counsel would have in mind.
“The board’s and the district’s (interests) should be one in the same,” he said. “There should be one common interest here.”
Other residents in attendance were concerned that there was not nearly enough notice about the issue, saying the item was not on advertised on local access cable television or printed on that night’s meeting agenda.
“I think that if you’re going to have any motion in the future in regard to spending capital that we are in so much need for in the city, there should be ample notice for the public for them to come in and give their opinion,” resident Bob Schweyen said.
Kirby said the item did not appear on the agenda because of recent meetings being rescheduled. He said it should have been on the agenda in order allow for public input.
“I don’t think we can be spending that amount of money for no reason,” Schweyen said. “If board members feel they are not being properly represented, then perhaps it is because they are not correct.”
Kirby said he didn’t speak on the matter after it was passed Jan. 20 because he wanted to have all of his facts straight.
“The $10,000 is, in my opinion, in the interest of responsibility,” he said.
Kirby said he wanted to make sure there was enough money in the budget to fund the new counsel before he spoke.
“As far as it being a personal thing, it’s not,” Kirby said. “We should be able to get a legal opinion that is not fuzzy. I’m not trying to be a jerk here.”
He said the move was made not because he doesn’t like current attorneys’ answers, but to protect the board and allow members to better follow the law.
Kirby said he hopes the new firm will help to avoid confusions and “gray areas” in the law, and that he plans to ask legal questions himself instead of through Supt. Patricia Cole.
Swiecki then asked Kirby why he couldn’t just start asking questions directly to the existing counsel; Kirby said it is because he has no confidence in them.
“I don’t want to come down on Dr. Cole and ask her ’what question did you ask to give me the answer that you gave me?’” he said. “Sometimes it was not the question that I originally asked.
“I’m not blaming her. Sometimes things get lost in translation.”
Cole then said she needed to clarify some of the issues Kirby brought up because they needed a full explanation.
She said that in the last 20 years, the district’s legal budget has been cut by $15,000. To accommodate the cuts, the district has not relied on written legal opinions, which cost more money. Instead, they send e-mails back and forth, which typically are free — and faster than obtaining written opinions.
“We gave you that information and you didn’t believe it,” Cole told Kirby. “I didn’t understand why you wanted us to pay for a written legal opinion.”
The money in the legal budget, some of which will be used for the new counsel, also must pay for the upcoming election in May.
Cole said the election will cost a substantial amount of that money, most of which already has been earmarked for specific things, like legal approval of ballots.
“We try to do our best to get the right opinion, the correct opinion, and then translate it to the board,” she said. “I think, and I’m embarrassed to say, that it must be my translation that is not trusted.
“But I feel like we’re trying to be fiscally correct an legally in compliance at the same time.”
Bedikan said not enough time and consideration were given to the decision.
“We’ve spent months talking about skirt length — months — and something like this goes through in a blink of an eye,” she said.
Bedikian also said she should have been told about the issue before the vote instead of hearing about it on the phone while in Washington.
Peters said he didn’t know about the motion until he came in for the meeting and found it as an attachment to the agenda.
“I walked away from it thinking if you throw enough money at someone, they will be your friend,” Peters said. “That is kind of the way I interpreted that motion.”
The issue is expected to be discussed further at the committee meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.