Wednesday, May 9, 2012

(Sacramento) Twin Rivers Unified's legal tab nearly $1 million for 4 months; union seeks audit

By Melody Gutierrez
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 9, 2012 - 7:42 am

Outside legal counsel for Twin Rivers Unified billed the north area school district nearly $1 million in the past four months, prompting renewed calls by its teachers union for an audit.

"We've been keeping a running tab and it's well over $8 million since July 1, 2008," when the district was created, said John Ennis, the Twin Rivers teachers union president. "This is just ridiculous."

By comparison, the larger Sacramento City Unified spent $956,000 on legal fees in eight months between July 1, 2011, and March 31, 2012.

Timothy M. Cary & Associates billed the district $289,635 for April; $277,155 for March; $233,219 in February, and $120,535 in January. On Tuesday evening, the board argued over whether to ratify payments already made to the firm in March and April. The board deadlocked 3-3 on whether to pull the approval from the agenda. Without a majority, the payments were not pulled off the agenda and thus will be paid.

Timothy Cary did not respond to a call for comment.

Twin Rivers Unified spokeswoman Trinette Marquis declined to comment for this story. Instead, she issued a statement on behalf of the district that said monthly billings from Cary's firm "represent invoices for work done on multiple cases covering multiple months and are not for work done only in that month."

Twin Rivers Unified would not provide a copy of Cary's contract for this story. It asked The Bee to submit a Public Records Act request for the document.

Marquis' statement also said the legal billings include work Cary's firm contracted out to other firms or specialized legal services. For example, Cary's firm hired former FBI agent James Maddock to conduct an internal review of the Twin Rivers police force.

"It looks like it all goes to him (Cary), but it's not," said trustee Michelle Rivas. "The legal fees are winding down. I don't think people fully appreciate how difficult it is to merge school districts."

The past seven months have been especially difficult for Twin Rivers Unified as the district faced public scrutiny about its police department and broader questions about who ultimately is responsible for actions under investigations.

The Sacramento Police Department is conducting an outside review at the request of the school district, while the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office, the FBI and the state attorney general's office are looking into allegations of corruption, theft of district resources and mishandling of property.

The Sacramento County grand jury is also investigating for a second year in a row.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the investigations, all but one of the district's seven school board seats are being contested in the June 5 election. This is the first board race since the inaugural group of trustees of the new district took office in 2008.

Tuesday's board meeting will be the last board meeting leading up to the election after trustees voted to cancel the May 22 meeting. Board president Roger Westrup cited an extensive list of end of the year activities for canceling the meeting. The board voted 4-2 to cancel the May meeting, with Alecia Eugene Chasten and Cortez Quinn voting against.

The board previously voted to cancel the April 24 board meeting.

Ennis said it's irresponsible for trustees to consider canceling two of the past three school board meetings when there is so much turmoil in the district.

The union leader said clearly there is plenty of work to do, given that the board packet for Tuesday's meeting was more than 600 pages. "They listed reasons for canceling the meeting, but why don't they be honest?" Ennis said. "There is a board campaign and they are worried about the grand jury report."

Ennis addressed the board about the district's legal bills, something he's done regularly over the past year.

Trustee Cortez Quinn, who is endorsed by the teachers union, said he is also concerned about Cary's billings.

"We pay Mr. Cary a lot of money, and I don't know if his services are worth what we've paid him," said Quinn, who is the lone current school board member not running with a slate of mostly incumbents.

Cary's firm was responsible for an unusual and vague resolution pulled from last month's consent agenda that would have endorsed legal actions taken – or not taken – by top leaders in the Twin Rivers Unified School District, as well as by Cary's firm.

The resolution left many questioning its intent as well as how the district's outside legal firm so easily placed the item on the consent agenda without any board members reviewing it first.

Resolution 316 set to "affirm and ratify actions taken, or deliberately not taken, by the superintendent, cabinet, staff, and/or general counsel regarding issues affecting Twin Rivers Unified School District."

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