RICHARD HYATT: Legal fees dispute far from over

March 15, 2013 

John Phillips and Frank Myers strutted around Tuesday’s school board meeting like roosters preening for the main event at a cockfight, overshadowing an issue that bears discussion.

In one corner was Phil-lips, the rooster in charge who never has a feather out of place. In the other was Myers, who almost got locked in the henhouse for being cocky and asking for equal time.

Myers came to share his findings on what other Georgia school districts pay their law firms. He said Muscogee County pays more than twice the per student average for legal counsel, numbers he declared unacceptable and outrageous.

He said the largest beneficiary of this is Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild, which has represented the district since the merger of city and county schools in 1950.

Phillips, determined not to let an upstart rooster with a law degree have the last word, said choosing law firms was his job and that he was comfortable with Hatcher Stubbs’ fees and service. (Left unsaid was that the board is not required to rubberstamp his every wish.)

Myers was allotted five minutes of fame, which any school board visitor knows isn’t always enforced. There were no questions or discussion as the board again protected a long-standing relationship.

This flap doesn’t date back to 1950 when the legal counsel was A. Edward Smith, who worked at a firm founded in 1872. It really began a decade ago during a dispute over land around the public library on Macon Road. A group of citizens went to court to preserve space for a park. Former Mayor Jim Wetherington — with Myers as his ambassador — forged a compromise in 2010 and complained that lawyers kept getting in the way of a settlement. You can probably guess what firm was involved.

Salivating over the annual fees that the school district pays, another local firm went after the business, but the board looked the other way. Right now, no other firms are waiting in the wings, though insiders know that being the school attorney opens the door for more than the money shown in the budget.

Phillips is taking the heat. He knows he will go back to his hunting dogs when a permanent superintendent is hired, so he’s running interference for the board. Despite being rebuffed, Myers isn’t going away, though this fight promises to get nastier.

Meanwhile, the board needs to look beyond the debate over law firms. Right now, more than a dozen school leaders have the right to call the lawyers and run up the bills. That’s not control. That’s chaos. Appointing a gatekeeper would control costs and cut down on frivolous phone calls.

But until something is done, the roosters will continue to sharpen their talons. — Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@ 

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