Williams argues for in-house legal team for Muscogee County School Board

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 22, 2013 

Only a few minutes after she passed the gavel and switched seats during Tuesday night’s Muscogee County School Board meeting, Cathy Williams spoke her mind as promised.

Williams, the nine-member panel’s lone county-wide representative, relinquished the chairmanship to the unanimously elected District 5 representative Rob Varner, then she challenged the board’s process of choosing its legal counsel.

And a brouhaha broke out.

While the board considered interim superintendent John Phillips’ recommendation to retain the Columbus firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis, & Rothschild LLP as the board’s parliamentarian and legal counsel, Williams claimed the district’s legal fees have “doubled, tripled, quadrupled” in recent years to “almost three-quarters of a million dollars.”

Hatcher Stubbs is the only legal counsel that has been used in the 63-year history of the school district, which was established when the city and county school districts merged in 1950. The board hasn’t sought bids or requests for proposals for those legal services each year.

Williams offered a substitute motion — seconded by District 7 representative Shannon Smallman — to make Hatcher Stubbs an interim appointment and advertise for a new position of in-house legal counsel.

In a district that puts teachers on furlough due to a budget crunch, Williams wants to “ensure our dollars go to the classroom rather than the courtroom.”

Then the discussion grew heated.

Naomi Buckner asked Williams to document her assertion of increased legal expenses. She noted Williams didn’t present any evidence that her proposal would save money.

“Out of 180 counties in Georgia, only two of them have this grand idea,” Buckner said.

“In-house legal counsel absolutely isn’t a savings,” District 1 representative Pat Hugley Green said. “You are creating an entire department that has to be staffed.”

Hugley Green also insisted a valid cost analysis over the years couldn’t be done unless charges for the same legal services were compared. Phillips interjected that Williams’ substitute motion was out of order because the board’s policy states that the superintendent recommends the school district’s law firm.

“Good grief,” District 2 representative John Wells said. “We could go back and forth all night.” Varner, already embroiled in controversy at the start of his first meeting as chairman, tried to ease the tension.

“I appreciate the passion,” he said, then cited the board’s policy as he ruled Williams’ substitute motion out of order. Williams asked the board’s parliamentarian for a second opinion, all of which put Greg Ellington, representing Hatcher Stubbs at the meeting, in the preposterous position of ruling on a point of order about his employer.

Ellington supported Varner’s ruling. “You can’t let a parliamentary procedure violate your board policy,” the lawyer said.

Williams relented and called for the question. The board voted 6-3 to approve Hatcher Stubbs. Williams, Smallman and District 6 representative Mark Cantrell voted no.

In other action, the board unanimously approved:

• Hugley Green as the board’s vice chairwoman.

• Michael Davis as the new principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Davis has worked in the school district since August 2003. He taught at the Academic Success Center from until February 2008, when he became a teacher on special assignment at Baker Middle School. He was promoted to Baker’s assistant principal in August 2010. Davis succeeds Terry Baker, who was promoted from MLK principal to the district’s elementary education direction after Karon Greyer retired.

• Trikella Nelson as the school district’s director of guidance services to replace the retired B.J. McBride. Nelson has been the guidance director at Columbus High since August 2008. She began there as a guidance counselor in August 1999.

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