In a repeat of last year's 6-3 vote and accompanied by many of the same arguments, the Muscogee County School Board on Tuesday night approved retaining Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild LLP as its legal counsel.
It will be the 64th straight year the Columbus law firm has represented the board -- the entire history of the Muscogee County School District.
Approving the recommendation from Superintendent David Lewis were chairman Rob Varner of District 5, vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, John Wells of District 2, Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3, Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Beth Harris of District 8. Voting no were county-wide representative Cathy Williams, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Shannon Smallman of District 7. Each member voted the same way last year.
Critics say the no-bid contract precludes the opportunity for other firms to provide the district with legal services. They also say the lack of competition doesn't give Hatcher Stubbs incentive to keep the costs down.
Proponents of retaining Hatcher Stubbs say legal counsel is a professional service that can't be compared to bidding for a product. They also say the firm's institutional knowledge is invaluable through decades of practicing education law and counseling the school district.
And caught in the middle of the political storm was the new guy at the board table, Lewis, who was hired in July from Polk County, Fla., where he was an assistant superintendent.
In his prepared statement and ensuing comments, Lewis reminded the board and the public that he has been the superintendent here for only five months.
"I am certainly aware of the contentiousness surrounding the topic of legal services provided to the district," Lewis said. "For that reason, along with my commitment to the board and the citizens of Muscogee County to base decisions and recommendations on data and research, I reached out to the Hanover Research firm, the evaluation firm with whom we contracted with earlier in the year, to conduct what I believe to be an objective, unbiased and independent assessment and evaluation on this subject."
The district is paying Washington-based Hanover Research $90,000 ($30,000 per year over three years) in lieu of filling a position in the research and evaluation department.
That 20-page report didn't say whether Hatcher Stubbs should be retained -- and Lewis said he purposely didn't ask for Hanover's opinion -- but he said the data helped in his recommendation.
Critics questioned why Hanover didn't identify its sources and why it concluded the report with a caveat that it can't guarantee its information. Lewis said both practices are standard for research firms.
"Therefore, 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 during my short tenure thus far, I'm recommending that the current firm of Hatcher Stubbs be retained as the district's legal counsel."
Hatcher Stubbs charges the district $165 per hour for partners and $115 per hour for associates.
But one aspect of the district's legal services has changed, Lewis said. He has implemented additional internal controls. He established a new billing method to better track legal expenses to each division in the district, which will be reviewed monthly, he said. He also is allowing only division chiefs and himself to request legal assistance.
"I'm pleased to tell you we have reduced our legal expenses considerably," Lewis said. "We are at less than a third of our budget amount for legal services."
The district paid Hatcher Stubbs $666,028 in legal fees during fiscal year 2012, more than double the $323,524 in 2005. District officials say that increase has resulted from society being more litigious.
Williams praised Lewis and Hatcher Stubbs for their work, but she continued to insist this is a bad "business decision" because the legal field is becoming more specialized.
"I support a hybrid method, where you have general services and then you have specialized services," she said. "This is a big corporation, people, a lot of taxpayer dollars. It should be treated like a business in that fashion."
Cantrell put it another way.
"Sixty-three years of not allowing another company to make a bid just really seems not the American way," he said.
Wells countered by noting, "I've been an independent businessman for way over 45 years in this community. This board, I agree, should be run like a business as well as you can, but, because it's a governmental entity, the nature of the beast provides that it's different."
Green pointed out that "professional services, according to our board policies, are hired at the discretion of the superintendent."
The board voted on the legal counsel before it allowed public comment. That didn't sit well with the two citizens on the public agenda: frequent board critics Nathan Smith and Frank Myers.
"That kind of takes away an opportunity for the public to be heard on that matter," said Smith, a finance company manager.
But that didn't stop Myers from blasting the board.
"Y'all had the chance tonight to bid out this 63-year-old disaster and buy yourselves some very badly needed good political will, and you flunked the test," said Myers, a lawyer and political operative who advised the board on its successful Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax campaign in 2009. He also boasted he helped six of the nine board members get elected.
"You had the chance to remove the cloud of suspicion," he said, "and you blew it."