Douglas County School District attorney replies to call to reduce mounting bill

Sarah Drinkwine / The Record-Courier

Since the Douglas County School Board hired Joey Gilbert as legal counsel in July, his services are on track to exceed the district’s legal budget for the year.

Gilbert filed expenses of $110,000 for the first two months his firm has represented the district.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Gilbert said $15,000 will be returned to the district.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Trustee Linda Gilkerson broke down a charge that appeared to be for the September board meeting alone.

“I know you know how up in arms the community is about the charges you have accrued so far,” said Gilkerson. “I have several concerns that appear on the legal service’s notice.”

She listed $7,475 billed for creating the agenda and supporting documents, $1,625 was charged to attend the agenda development meeting, $13,000 to review the agenda and documents prior to the meeting and $750 for a binder that staff created for this meeting.

Gilkerson pointed out that Gilbert charged for 15 hours at $325 per hour for the Sept. 12 meeting, plus hundreds of dollars for emails and phone calls between board members.

“I hope you understand that our budget cannot support the continued legal bill,” said Gilkerson.

Gilbert replied that substantial research and time has gone into reviewing the board’s bylaws and that the district has received 30 public record requests and four open meeting law complaints, which is where a majority of the bill has gone.

“When I came in here I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I’d be in here with, like I said, 30 public record requests, four open meeting law complaints and writ of mandamus that’s now 900 pages,” said Gilbert. “At least half goes to that.”

After hearing previous criticism regarding his bill, Gilbert is now looking at ways to reduce the amount. 

According to Gilbert and Kiera Sears, the firm’s fees are meant to be charged against the $7,500 monthly retainer first before other charges add up.

Sears is an employee at Gilbert’s firm who handles finances. Though she is not a licensed attorney, she has offered legal opinion during at least two board meetings.

Gilbert said additional charges would be reduced including the rate for Sears. He said her services are typically billed at $475 but were being billed at the same rate he charges at $325. He said that rate is due to come down. too.

“So, there’s going to be a retroactive credit back and probably another $10,000-$15,000 on top of that,” said Gilbert.

Tuesday’s meeting exceeded several hours of debate, not only with Gilbert’s fees, but specifically with the board bylaws, including No. 060 regarding meetings, No. 070 the Boards Code of Conduct, No. 902 the board’s communication with the public and No. 338 which was a new Whistleblower policy.

There were several claims that the bylaws were changed in November following the election of the new board in order to “take away” the responsibilities of the board and grant more to the superintendent and that it aligned with NASB standards.

“There’s been a lot on our plate as to why things are not working,” said Gilbert. “One thing I find interesting is the National Association of School Boards. I’m trying to defang … the district’s bylaws with what has been added to them since COVID. The public probably isn’t aware of this, but starting April 20, 2020, additions started being made to the bylaws, there was no public meeting and no one else involved. So, what I have been doing is going through those and showing President Jansen what’s going on.”

However, a review of the meeting agendas and minutes on the district’s web site indicates that at least the board’s code of conduct was approved after four public meetings, including two subcommittee and two involving the full board.

The code of conduct was approved by a 5-2 vote on June 9, 2020, after a call for public comment.

Those recordings and minutes can be found on the Douglas County School District website.

“The Bylaws we are talking about 060 and 070, neither one of these were changed after the election, the last time they were changed was in March 2022, so I just wanted to clarify that,” said former school board trustee Heather Jackson.

Former President Robbe Lehmann denied that there was any influence from NASB for the changes of the bylaws.

“I was involved with several of these bylaw changes, and I can tell you that never once was NASB part of my decision for these,” said Lehmann. “Never once did NASB contact me and ask me to make changes, never once did I communicate with them. In fact I have my own issues with NASB, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that all of these were pushed through by NASB because they really weren’t.”

Trustee voted to combine the four bylaws into one agenda item, the first reading to amend them was approved 4-3.

Changes are expected to be made and brought back to the board for further review.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.