BOE legal shift raises conflict concerns

Kathy Yolish was reappointed chairwoman of the Board of Education during its meeting Wednesday, Dec. 16.

Kathy Yolish was reappointed chairwoman of the Board of Education during its meeting Wednesday, Dec. 16.

Brian Gioiele / Hearst Connecticut Media

The Board of Education, with new leadership in place, has handed its legal affairs to the city’s corporation counsel — the same legal team handling the city’s lawsuit against the Board of Education.

With the new board seated and Republican Kathy Yolish the new chair, members voted 5-4 to hire the law firm of Teodosio and Stanik and terminate the services of Chinni and Mueser, the board’s present team. Voting for the measure were Republicans Yolish, John Fitzgerald, James Orazietti, Amy Romano and Carl Rizzo. Voting against were Democrats Kate Kutash, Amanda Kilmartin, Patti Moonan and Diana Meyer.

This legality of this vote has come into question, which led the board to schedule a special meeting Monday, Nov. 25, with specific questions about the use of corporation counsel and the removal of Chinni and Mueser formally on the agenda. While the results are expected to be the same, the final votes were done after presstime.

The Democrat board members argued at the Nov. 20 meeting that the new contract was a conflict of interest, considering that corporation counsel Fran Teodosio presently has a lawsuit against the Board of Education. The city sued the Board of Education for repayment of what it said the board overspent in its 2016-17 and 2017-18 budget allocations by some $2.7 million. The case is still pending.

“We're attorneys, bound by laws of conflict of interest, and we realize full well that there are a couple suits right now pending against the Board of Education,” said Teodosio. “In regards to those items, we have a mechanism to deal with that.”

Teodosio told the Board of Education he could not comment on his advice to city officials about the suit. Mayor Mark Lauretti, reached by phone during the board meeting, said the suit remains in place and the court will determine how quickly the case proceeds.

Lauretti said that all legal matters regarding the city’s boards and commissions come under jurisdiction of the city’s corporation counsel under the charter.

Teodosio said if there exists a conflict, such as the present lawsuit, Teodosio would assign the matter to another firm, with recommendations from the Board of Education.

"We recognize input is necessary from you,” said Teodosio, adding that he has more than 35 years of experience representing municipalities, as does his partner, Fred Stanik, who was also present at the meeting. “Conflicts happen all the time. We know how to handle it and know how to assign it.”

Teodosio said his firm has represented municipalities run by Republicans and Democrats and does not let politics interfere with their role as a city’s legal representative.

"We are here to provide guidance," said Teodosio. “We're not here to take over the entire Board of Education, but we are here to correct some discrepancies that we think happened over the years with the way the Board of Education receives its legal services.”

Kutash, who lost bids for board chair, vice chair and secretary, asked what the change in legal counsel means for negotiations with the teachers union, which has begun but was delayed until the new board — with six new members — was seated.

"There is nothing that stops you from changing horses in midstream,” said Teodosio. “If it is best that that (the present) firm stay, we can discuss that, but contract negotiations is not a reason to not change attorneys.”

Teodosio said neither he nor his partner specialize in special education law, but, again, corporation counsel’s role is to assign the proper legal firms to handle the city’s business.

"I am distressed with losing Chinni and Mueser as our legal counsel,” said Kutash.