Superintendent recommends retaining Hatcher Stubbs as school board law firm

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 15, 2014 

The Muscogee County School Board voted Tuesday to name Polk County's David Lewis, 56, as the finalist for the job of superintendent. 07/09/13

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Superintendent David Lewis has recommended the Muscogee County School Board retain Hatcher Stubbs as its legal counsel, despite critics saying the no-bid contract doesn't allow other law firms to compete for the opportunity.

Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild LLP, has represented the school board for 63 straight years -- the entire history of the Muscogee County School District.

In an email addressed to the board Tuesday night, Lewis explained his recommendation, based on a report from Hanover Research of Washington, D.C. In October, the board approved hiring Hanover for $30,000 per year over three years instead of filling a research and evaluation position.

"Given the results of the independent research and evaluation provided by Hanover Research, the historical institutional knowledge Hatcher-Stubbs possesses, the fact that their hourly rate of billing is within or less than the range identified in the evaluation for districts of similar size with no increase since 2005, and the proven track record of success that most recently resulted in the district prevailing in a case dating back to the early 1980's that represents an approximate cost avoidance of $5 million dollars, I will be recommending that Hatcher-Stubbs serve as the district's legal counsel at next week's Board Meeting," Lewis wrote.

But the recommendation comes with changes Lewis said he already has made about the district's legal bills.

"I met with representatives of Hatcher-Stubbs to establish a new method of billing in which charges are billed to the GL account to which they are charged. This will serve two purposes:

"1. I am better able to track and identify legal expenses relative to each specific division. Billing will be reviewed on a monthly basis.

"2. This will provide better insight into areas where training is needed within a division to potentially reduce the need for legal assistance.

"A second control I have implemented is that no one other than a division chief may submit a request for legal assistance."

Frank Myers, a Columbus lawyer and political operative, has been the most vocal critic of the board's no-bid legal contract. He warned the board he will watch their vote closely Tuesday night.

"This issue now sits squarely in the laps of school board members," Myers said Wednesday. "The superintendent is not answerable to the voters, but the board members are.

"There are five board positions open later this year. If I was on the school board, I would not want to be on the wrong side of this issue come election time."

Last year, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 and then-superintendent John Phillips asked Columbus police Chief Ricky Boren to investigate allegations that Myers and state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, had threatened one or more board members who voted to retain Hatcher Stubbs. Boren referred that request to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which interviewed school board members, McKoon and Myers. In September, the attorney general's office confirmed the GBI's probe uncovered no crime.

The allegation against McKoon is that he threatened to withhold state funding from the school district if the board didn't vote to end its no-bid contract with Hatcher Stubbs. In addition to the questionable ability for one state senator to withhold state funding, the attorney general found no "quid pro quo," no payoff that under Georgia law would be bribery.

The allegation against Myers came from a text he sent to board member John Wells of District 2: "I'm taking you out," Myers wrote, alluding to Wells being up for re-election this year. The attorney general concluded that was free speech, not an illegal threat.

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