Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ed Brand says he's going to review legal fees in Sweetwater

Channel 6 reports: "Over the next 30 to 60 days, Dr. Brand said he will conduct a review of all recent administrative appointments and district legal fees to address board and community concerns."

Brand used to be on the committee that oversaw lawyers at SDCOE. He didn't worry much about ethics then. And the Sweetwater Union High School District board has stuck with lawyer Bonifacio Garcia despite widespread criticism over the years. BUt if they see it's in their interest, I'm sure both Brand and the board will be willing to pull the plug on their old pal.

Sweetwater District Board of Trustees Appoints Dr. Ed Brand as Acting Superintendent
Channel 6 San Diego

The Sweetwater Board of Trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint Dr. Ed Brand the acting district superintendent.

Dr. Ed Brand spent most of his education career in the Sweetwater District before serving as superintendent from 1995 until 2005. He will fill the post for one year or until a permanent replacement is found for Dr. Jesus Gandara, who was separated from the District on Tuesday...

With Gandara gone, attorney could be next

By Jeff McDonald and Ashly McGlone
June 29, 2011

The Sweetwater school board terminated its superintendent last week over a number of ethical concerns, and some community members are now pushing for removal of the district’s lawyer.

The attorney, Bonifacio Garcia, signed off on some of the matters that shook community confidence in the ousted superintendent, Jesus Gandara.

For instance, public-relations bills whose veracity is under criminal investigation were signed off by Garcia and submitted to the district for payment. Some participants listed on the bills told The Watchdog meetings didn’t happen or did not pertain to district business.

Garcia’s district contract calls for his firm to be paid a monthly retainer of $83,000 and allows him to bill for outside consultants on his own or at the direction of the superintendent, with no board oversight.

Ed Brand, the former Sweetwater Union High School District superintendent who came out of retirement to serve in the interim, hired Garcia in the mid-1990s during his previous stint.

Brand said on Wednesday that he has asked for an outside review of Sweetwater’s legal costs, conducted by the county Office of Education, to see if they are in line with comparable districts.

According to an analysis presented to the school board last week, Sweetwater pays a lower proportion of legal fees than other large California districts.

For example, San Francisco Unified paid almost $3 million in legal fees in 2009-10 — 0.58 percent of its $510 million budget. Sacramento City schools spent $1.8 million or 0.45 percent of its $397 million budget that year and Sweetwater spent $1.25 million, or 0.38 percent of its $332 million budget in 2009-10, according to the analysis.

Brand said that analysis may have been skewed by the districts selected, and he has asked county education officials to do an independent review.

“The answer may be that we are getting a great value for the amount of work being done, or that we have the opportunity to improve not only the quality but the price,” Brand said. “We are going to let the chips fall where they may.”

Garcia, a 1981 graduate of Harvard Law School, declined to be interviewed.

Yuri Calderon, managing partner of Garcia Calderon Ruiz, issued a statement saying, “Our attorneys are from the top law schools in the country and provide the highest quality legal service to our public clients, including the Sweetwater district. GCR, LLP and its attorneys maintain the highest ethical standards in the legal representation of clients.”

Community pressure to terminate the contract with the Los Angeles-based law firm has surfaced before. At his final meeting as a Sweetwater schools trustee, Greg Sandoval moved to terminate the agreement.

“I felt frustrated with their performance and with their fees, the amount they were charging and I no longer had confidence in their ability to protect the district’s interests,” Sandoval said.

His motion in November got support from one other trustee, Bertha Lopez, who says her top priority at the district is now removal of Garcia.

Alex Anguiano, high school science teacher and Sweetwater Education Association president, said, “It’s time to look at our district, how we function with human resources and that includes our relationship with our attorneys. Perhaps we need to do a little more house cleaning than just our superintendent.”

Amid community concern last week, trustees unanimously tabled an item which would have authorized Garcia to obtain outside legal and investigative services for the coming school year.

Garcia’s firm also has worked for San Ysidro schools, Southwestern College, Otay Water District and a number of agencies outside San Diego County. The firm dropped the Otay district this year in a dispute over conflicting loyalties with Sweetwater.

“They did a great job in the one matter they handled for us,” said Tim Nader, the Southwestern College board president. “The investigation they handled very competently, very thoroughly and it was helpful to the district in guarding against future misuse of taxpayer funds.”

Manuel Paul, the San Ysidro superintendent, said GCR attorney Marie Mendoza has done a terrific job and was a product of the schools he now runs.

“She is a very good attorney and we are very satisfied with her services,” he said.

At Sweetwater, GCR prevailed in a lawsuit filed by former district administrator Karen Janney over vacation time after her demotion and resignation. The firm also helped the district win $13,913 in attorney fees from Janney earlier this month.

Garcia has not always been on the side of open meetings and open records, a favorite cause of The Watchdog.

Gandara expanded a district contract for a company offering online courses in March, seeking board approval by email rather than at a public meeting — an action Garcia signed off on.

Also, when The Watchdog sought records of the P.R. billings by former Councilman Scott Alevy, the law firm declined, even though taxpayers were footing the bill.

Garcia’s contract “basically gives him carte blanche to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants and there are no checks and balances,” said Kathleen Cheers, whose grandchildren are Sweetwater students. “I don’t think anyone should have this kind of power. It’s wrong.”

Garcia’s firm has been the subject of billing questions by other public agencies.

In the city of Rosemead, GCR billed $276,000 in 2008 for nine months work. The City Council had budgeted $162,000 for the year.

“It is just too high, and there is no excuse for it as far as I’m concerned,” then-Councilman Gary Taylor told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Garcia resigned as Rosemead city attorney in 2009.

In 2007, the grand jury in Kern County cited Garcia for billing the tiny city of Wasco about $83,000 for four months of legal work. The jury recommended training for council members “as soon as possible” on the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state open-meeting law, because officials under Garcia’s advice limited public input and did business behind closed doors.

Garcia also is active politically. He helped organize the Citizens for Good Government in South Bay political action committee that last year donated $5,000 to school board member Jim Cartmill.

Garcia’s wife, Laura Martinez, gave $5,000 to Cartmill and $5,000 to trustee Arlie Ricasa last year, records show. She gave Lopez $1,000 in 2009 and $900 to board president John McCann this year.

In an interview last week, McCann said the district should give the acting superintendent time to assess the situation.

“What we want to do is allow Dr. Brand to do his analysis and we want him to come in and give an independent perspective on it,” McCann said. “I think we want to give the superintendent the opportunity to look at this.”

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