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Warren BOE votes 3-2 to pay legal fees

WARRENTON, Ga. -- It appears that taxpayers of Warren County will be footing the legal bills incurred by three members of the school board following court action by a citizens group to get them ousted from office by the governor.

In a controversial 3-2 vote and to the dissatisfaction of many property owners in attendance at Monday night's school board meeting, Clara B. Roberts, Cecil Brown and Dr. Charles Culver are seeking at least $20,000 in retainer fees for a lawyer they hired to defend them.

Two other school board members, Gwendolyn Tucker, who serves as board chairwoman and Randy Morris, who serves as vice-chairman, were adamantly opposed to spending taxpayers' money for such costs.

Dr. Culver, who at one time served as county school superintendent before retiring, made the request to add the item to the monthly school board meeting agenda.

He based his belief that taxpayers should pay those legal costs because he, Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Brown represent a majority makeup on the school board.

That point was disputed by James E. Bostic Jr., a member of the Georgia State School Board, who along with Brad Bryant, were appointed several weeks ago by Gov. Sonny Perdue to serve as liaisons to school board members in an attempt to save the school system's SACS accreditation.

The same two men served in the same capacity two years ago when the Clayton County School System had problems with school board members. It led to the governor removing them from office.

Mr. Bryant is now serving as appointed interim state school superintendent.

Mr. Bostic contends that the action brought against Dr. Culver, Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Brown was based on them serving as individual school board members -- not as a collective group.

"This is absolutely out of bounds and should not be done," Mr. Bostic said.

Mrs. Tucker followed by saying, "I object to the board paying this."

Mr. Morris agreed with her, pointing out, "This was an unnecessary action to begin with. The board shouldn't pay for their actions."

Immediately following the controversial vote to pay those legal fees, several residents attending the meeting expressed outrage.

One of them was Carolyn Martin, who along with her husband, John, are among a nine-member group that filed a petition with Gov. Perdue several weeks ago to have Dr. Culver, Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Brown removed from office, based on several allegations -- one of which involves breach of public trust.

Mrs. Martin accused the three school board members of sabotaging the school system.

"They have sabotaged this school system," Mrs. Martin said before becoming upset and leaving the packed media center at Warren County High School.

Other residents expressed comments, too.

Most of the comments were in opposition to pay the legal costs. Others even supported the action by the three school board members.

An argument broke out between three residents, which resulted in three Warrenton police officers being called to keep peace for the remainder of the meeting.

Order was immediately restored by Mrs. Tucker, who told the estimated 80 people in attendance, "I know your emotions are running high, but I ask that you keep order."

There were no other outbursts.

Warren County School Superintendent Carole Jean Carey told the school board that there is no money in the budget to pay for those legal costs.

"There's nowhere for it (money) to come from, because we're just barely breaking even," Mrs. Carey said.

Warren County School Board Attorney Mike Dishman, who addressed those at the meeting through a sky-video conference, urged school board members to wait until after Administrative Law Judge John B. Gatto makes his recommendation to the governor on July 28 before voting to pay the legal costs of Dr. Culver, Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Brown.

"It is a case of first impression," Mr. Dishman said, noting that waiting for the judge's decision before voting on the issue was a more "defensive" approach.

Despite his legal opinion, Dr. Culver, Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Brown went ahead and voted to have taxpayers pay their legal costs.

"The board of education has to have legal representation," Dr. Culver said, noting that the group had to seek outside legal representation because Mr. Dishman had been told he may be a potential witness in last week's hearing held in Atlanta.

Mrs. Roberts agreed.

"We had no other choice," Mrs. Roberts said in pointing out the need to hire legal representation. "We had to get up and do what we had to do."

The school board members hired Brian Watkins, an Atlanta lawyer, to represent them.

Mrs. Roberts insisted on a vote being taken concerning the legal costs at Monday night's meeting.

"The attorney had to have a retainer fee," Mrs. Roberts said. "We need to vote tonight."

Mrs. Tucker fired back, saying, "It's just like rewarding a child for bad behavior."

Fran Hutchinson, who works with the school system, said school officials had been advised by a state auditor not to pay the legal costs, because the money was not being spent for the betterment of the school system.

Her comment met with a rousing applause from several in the crowded room.

Web posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010

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