Squabble over legal services erupts at State Center meeting

A confusing squabble erupted at State Center Community College District’s meeting Tuesday over whether the district’s governing board has the authority to hire its own legal counsel, a question that split board members, caused some to call for a grand jury investigation into district practices and led one board member to accuse the district’s interim chancellor of character assassination.

Put simply, the conversation got ugly.

At issue was the hiring of Jack Lipton, an education attorney with a history of representing school and community college districts across California. Lipton was paid without a contract to advise the district on two big issues, including conversations over the contract of former chancellor Deborah Blue and to investigate allegations against Trustee Eric Payne.

Most recently, Lipton was hired to advise a three-member committee investigating Payne. The board voted to reprimand Payne for plagiarism and misusing a disability parking placard. But when State Center’s general counsel and interim Chancellor Bill Stewart requested documents from that investigation, Lipton said no, citing attorney-client privilege with the board.

On Tuesday, the district’s seven-member board quarreled over whether the committee had the right to hire an attorney who would report to them, rather than the chancellor’s office. Historically only the chancellor reports to the board, and authority to hire outside counsel has rested with the chancellor.

The board voted 6-1, with Trustee Pat Patterson the lone “no” vote, to pass a resolution to clarify the question, at least for now. The resolution makes it clear that Lipton is not on retainer and has to hand over all notes, reports and information he’s collected for the district. The board also agreed to review its practices and its list of approved outside law firms.

“Regardless of how you feel about that, I think it’s critical that we make a clear statement that the board doesn’t hire or supervise personnel other than the chancellor,” said Board President Ronald Nishinaka before the vote.

But the vote didn’t come without a fight, one that’s been brewing for months according to correspondence from March between Lipton and the district’s general counsel, Gregory Taylor.

In a March 4 letter, Taylor demanded Lipton turn over all information to the board, then stated “your representation of the district is over.” Lipton responded the next day, saying his work for the committee wasn’t finished and, citing attorney-client privilege, that he couldn’t release the information.

At the meeting, when it was Lipton’s turn to speak, he spent several minutes arguing his employment was proper.

Patterson, former board president and a member of the committee, took up Lipton’s torch, arguing the board should have the right to hire its own attorneys when it needs advice relating to the employee it oversees, the chancellor. He accused the district’s in-house counsel of working at the whim of Stewart, not the board, and said Stewart and others in the administration have tried to discredit the committee and assassinate his character.

That didn’t hold well with other board members.

“I find it terribly insensitive that you’re calling out staff,” responded Trustee Robert Kahn, who then called for the board to vote.

Others were given time to speak, including several faculty and Clovis Community College Center President Deborah Ikeda, who all urged the board to adopt the resolution. They said that without it, Clovis Community College Center’s pending accreditation could be at risk. Ikeda noted the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges is expected to approve it by summer, but that those in charge of approval have concerns about how the district is handling its legal affairs.

More than an hour later, the board clerk finally took a roll call vote.

There was much left to be discussed and confusion to clear up. That’s for another day, the board concluded.

“I could ‘legalese’ this to death but I don’t want to do that tonight,” said Trustee Richard Caglia. “I don’t think there’s anybody on this board that wants to circumvent what we need to do for this district.”