The Palo Alto school board held its first public discussion on Tuesday about the future of the district general counsel position after voting behind closed doors earlier this month to terminate the contract of the only person to ever hold the position. job.
In recent weeks, board members have been tight-lipped about why they voted behind closed doors on August 4 to terminate Komey Vishakan’s contract “without cause”. Vishakan was hired as general counsel in December 2018 after previously serving as the district’s compliance officer.
The then Board of Directors created the position of General Counsel in an effort to improve legal compliance and reduce costs. Vishakan reported to the board but had a dotted line with the superintendent.
At their August 23 meeting, board members supported retaining a lead lawyer, but indicated their willingness to contract with an outside firm to provide the lawyer, rather than hire one internally. , with some board members also asking for more clarity on the reporting structure of the position.
The discussion around the General Counsel position was put on the agenda for discussion, not action, so no formal vote was taken.
Board member Jesse Ladomirak said she believes the reporting structure of the general counsel and how that person interacts with the board is particularly important.
“I think that’s something we learned through this process,” Ladomirak said. “I know (that) I at least need more clarity, if this is someone we’re supposed to deal with, how can we do this within the confines of Brown’s law?”
The Brown Act governs open meetings in California, including what can be discussed behind closed doors.
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza also said she wanted to review the board’s relationship with the general counsel, noting that because board members do not work onsite and day-to-day management is left to the superintendent, he has sometimes left the board wondering when they are supposed to have face time with the general counsel.
Todd Collins pointed out that the board’s bylaws require that only the chairman of the board consult directly with counsel.
“That’s my concern,” DiBrienza said. “It seems very disconnected and it feels like if there was something the general counsel thought we should know about, is it just (done) by the chairman of the board? Is there there a time, in addition to an annual review, that the board and the general counsel are just talking in a room, all six of them?”
Ladomirak suggested the possibility of scheduling a monthly meeting with the general counsel, with the rest of the board sending questions to the president.
Ladomirak also said she thought it was important for someone to have overall legal responsibility in the district and be in charge of managing other outside attorneys, but was open to different ways to structure it.
“I think we need a general counsel,” Ladomirak said. “I’m less attached to whether the general counsel is an employee or an outside attorney.”
DiBrienza and Shounak Dharap also expressed openness to either approach.
Dharap said he favors a dual track, in which the district screens candidates for an internal position while seeking proposals from companies that can provide on-site counsel. Ladomirak supported this idea, asking staff to bring back a proposal on how to move forward, which the board would consider.
Superintendent Don Austin told the council that after speaking with Chairman Ken Dauber, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, he contacted two outside companies the district had worked with to see if they could provide on-site counsel. part-time and both were open to discussing arrangements. Austin added that this was not a recommendation on his part, but that it was for background research.
If the board decides to keep the general counsel position as an employee, Austin said one issue is whether to continue to have other employees report to the attorney. Austin told the board he had already changed to have the district’s new acting Title IX coordinator, Robert Andrade, report to Deputy Superintendent Trent Bahadursingh rather than the general counsel.
Regardless of district employees, Dharap said once a general counsel is selected, the district should work with that person to decide how they will handle outside law firms hired by the district to work on specific cases.
Ladomirak and DiBrienza also supported considering whether to raise the salary, which currently ranges from $170,989 to $188,634.