Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘Surprise parties’: NHCSB member splits from Republican majority on attorney contract extension

Vogel estimates higher retainer rate due to board activity

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — An update on the district’s legal expenses was on the New Hanover County Board of Education docket Tuesday, but an attempt to extend the contract with the newly hired Vogel Law Firm failed due to one member’s break with majority. 

READ MORE: School board temporarily bans book on American racism from NHCS classrooms

Board member Josie Barnhart’s motion to extend Vogel’s contract to June 30, 2024 on retainer failed 3-3, with board member Melissa Mason parting from the Republican majority and voting alongside Stephanie Kraybill (R) and Stephanie Walker (D). Hugh McManus was absent from the meeting. 

In May, the board hired Vogel on a six-month trial contract, with expenses billed by the hour. Two months in, Kraybill requested a discussion of Vogel’s performance be placed on Tuesday’s agenda. She claimed legal counsel Jonathan Vogel shared the firm’s actions and billing in closed session when it should have been presented in open session. Per North Carolina law, closed sessions are reserved for discussions of personnel or confidential matters.

At the agenda review meeting on Aug. 29, the board agreed to add the presentation and discussion as an information item. However, the item was placed in old business, making it susceptible to board action. 

“This was a surprise party,” Mason said during the meeting.

For that reason, Mason said she would not vote for the measure, despite her good review of Vogel’s performance so far.

“This was not emergent,” Mason added. “This was not in any way absolutely imperative that we vote on today. I’m concerned because this is not the first time. And I know at one point I was part of that and I was guilty of that and I did apologize for doing so. But as a board we need to be transparent with each other.”

The board member was referencing Kraybill’s request during agenda review that no “surprise parties” happen where board members add action items to the agenda without warning. 

Kraybill criticized the lack of adherence to board norms and code of ethics, the latter of which was discussed earlier in the night. Republican members’ attempted to push through amendments that would allow the board to remove a member’s privileges per majority vote for ethical violations. Mason also dissented in a vote to pass the policy. 

During the legal service discussion, Mason went on to say she thought Vogel needed more time to “prove themselves.” 

The three assenting board members said Vogel had done enough to merit a contract extension. Vice chair Pat Bradford said she liked that Vogel didn’t “interject with suggestions.” 

Bradford also claimed Vogel was a more financially beneficial firm compared with the board’s previous counsel, Tharrington Smith. Her statement came after Walker expressed concern about spending over budget for legal services. 

According to Vogel’s July invoice — in which the expense descriptions are redacted — the board was charged $32,000 for legal expenses. At Vogel’s hourly rate of $235, the largest expenses were in academics, board meetings and board counsel. Vogel explained he spent the most time working on Superintendent Charles Foust’s contract renewal and the “Stamped” book hearing.

Bradford stated Tharrington Smith’s highest monthly bill was $61,000 and an average around $45,000. 

NHCS Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton clarified the former firm’s highest bill was actually $32,000 with an average of $28,000. The $60,000 price tag was an invoice covering two months, according to Sutton.

Still, Bradford thought it best to prepare for the future.

“Right now we need to be thinking about what we’re going to do in December and January because that’s how a good business is run,” Bradford said. “You’re forward thinking about where you’re going to be.” 

Barnhart stated it would be more fiscally responsible to move to a retainer, though Vogel clarified a cost estimate for it upon chair Pete Wildeboer’s inquiry. The original pricing for the retainer — excluding litigation and investigation — was $22,500; on Tuesday, Vogel said the estimate would likely be around $28,000 after seeing how “busy” the district was and gaining insight on what the district was paying Tharrington Smith.

Vogel also outlined everything he’s been doing since the firm was hired. He said he has recovered over $40,000 from bond forfeitures and advocated against the release of 10 vehicle seizures. Money from those court processes go to local school districts. He said he is working on several exceptional children cases, along with assisting human resources staff on employee contracts and policies. 

The attorney also reported “success” on assisting with public records requests. When the firm came on, he said it would take them around 18 days to respond to the communication team’s requests for guidance, while now it can take as little as one or two days. He reported an influx of requests due to the “Stamped” book hearing. 

Port City Daily has one request still open regarding details on the Michael Kelly sexual assault settlement. It was submitted on June 13. 

In mid-August, WHQR reported a PRR hadn’t been filled containing emails from the New Hanover County Schools district. It was delayed due to Vogel unable to open a “zip” document that accesses Microsoft Outlook emails. It was filled a few days after the news outlet ran the story.

Vogel reported he has assisted with a dozen PRR’s so far.

[Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect Vogel’s original retainer offer was $22,500, not $12,000. PCD regrets the error.]

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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