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BOE member questions attorney's contract

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The contract for the Clayton County school system's in-house legal counsel is illegal, and invalid, according to one member of the Board of Education.

Norreese Haynes claims Dorsey Hopson, who was hired by the board on Aug. 6, is not legally the attorney for the school system. According to Haynes, the in-house legal counsel is an employee of the school system, not the board, and has to be recommended by Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan.

Haynes, and fellow board member Sandra Scott, cast the dissenting votes when Hopson was hired on a 7-to-2 vote by the board.

Since Hopson, who is being paid $175,000 per year by the school system, was hired, board Chairperson Ericka Davis has maintained that he works for the board, not the superintendent.

Davis said she feels that the board did not need a recommendation from Duncan. The system's organizational chart, dated July 30, 2007, puts the attorney on a level above the superintendent.

Haynes believes Davis' interpretation goes against the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 20-2-211, which says "all teachers, principals, other certified professional personnel, and other personnel of a local unit of administration shall be employed and assigned by its governing board on the recommendation of its executive officer."

In an open letter to his constituents this week, Haynes claims the school system attorney falls under the category of "other personnel."

Copies of the Haynes letter were handed out at the board's meeting on Monday. Haynes said he plans to ask both a Clayton County grand jury, and the State Bar of Georgia to look into the matter.

"This is the people's money that this board is spending, and it is the people to whom this school board must answer," Haynes said as he read his letter to fellow board members during the Oct. 1 board meeting. "Because of the apparent and inordinate desire of a few board members, this board now finds itself without legitimate legal counsel."

According to the two contracts, provided by Haynes, some language was added to the Aug. 7 version, that did not exist in the version that was e-mailed to board members on Aug. 3.

One version of Hopson's contract, which was sent to board members on Aug. 3, says Hopson was recommended by interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan. The version that was signed on Aug. 7, however, does not include that recommendation. The contract that was signed also says the board voted on hiring Hopson on Aug. 7, instead of Aug. 6.

The version of the contract on Aug. 7, includes a section, which says the board has to decide if Hopson will get a contract extension at least six months before his contract expires on June 30, 2010. This clause was not in the version on Aug. 3. Also not in the Aug. 3 version was a reference that gives Hopson "sole discretion" over the hiring of supplemental legal counsel for the school system.

Hopson became the school system's interim legal counsel after the law firm of Weekes and Candler, LLP, which had provided counsel to the school system for nearly 20 years, abruptly ended its association with the school system in July. Hopson had been a member of the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, which had been hired by the school system in February to investigate a controversial 2006 land purchase in Riverdale.

On July 30, the idea of creating an in-house legal counsel was proposed to board members. During that meeting, the board decided to wait on making a decision until other lawyers had been given an opportunity to apply for the position. The issue came up for a vote a week later, though, with Hopson still being the preferred candidate.

Haynes also claims Hopson's contract is illegal, because Hopson's name was not mentioned during the motion, on Aug. 6, to hire in-house legal counsel. The original version of the motion also indicated it was Duncan's recommendation to hire Hopson, but it was quickly changed to make Hopson's appointment a board-only decision.

"I make a motion that we approve the superintendent's recommendation...," Board vice chairman Rod Johnson said, according to minutes from the Aug. 6 meeting.

"It's ours," Davis interrupted.

"It's our recommendation, I stand corrected," Johnson continued. "I make a motion we accept approval of in-house legal counsel."

Davis declined to comment on the issue, on Oct. 1, when she was asked about it.

During the Oct. 1 board meeting, Rod Johnson read a prepared response to the claims made by Haynes.

Johnson said the school system spent $552,000 in legal fees during Fiscal Year 2007. He also said Weekes and Candler was providing similar in-house legal services on one, or two days each week.

"Just two months ago, the board agreed unanimously to enter into negotiations with Mr. Hopson to serve as our legal counsel," Johnson said as he read the statement. "The decision was based on a realization that depending on supplemental legal counsel could be substantially more costly to the taxpayers than having in-house counsel to provide day-to-day legal support."

After he finished reading the statement, Johnson looked in the direction of Haynes and said: "It's great to make long and 'endeavorous' speeches, but if you can't say anything intelligent or intellectual, then let us get on with our meeting. You have already publicly exposed private conversations which took place in executive session."

Hopson then added: "I'm not going to be intimidated or threatened. There are things the board should know, but I'm not going to say those things in public. I'll share those things with the board in executive session."

He declined to comment on the matter on Wednesday.