SPARTA, NJ –The newly seated board of education got right to work on Monday. No sooner had new members been sworn in and leadership chosen did board members move to eliminate one of the district’s two law firms.
Bragg opened the meeting for board members to discuss old and new business. Board member Kate Matteson asked the board to consider a resolution to eliminate the second attorney, the Comegno Law Group.
Jay Ventresca asked Matteson for her rationale for the resolution. Matteson said Superintendent Michael Rossi had brought attorney John Comegno on to deal with issues pertaining to the turf field. He then had Comegno handle his contract renewal.
“Both of those things are done now,” Matteson said. “We don’t need two law firms.” Matteson said she had been reviewing the legal bills for both firms.
Rossi said Comegno was currently handling district business since the firm was confirmed at the spring reorganization meeting. When Hoover asked was would happen with those matters, Bragg said they would be picked up by Rod Hara, the district’s long-time counsel.
A review of legal bills from July through the end of October shows a significant increase in legal charges from the Comegno Law Group as compared to Fogerty and Hara. Comegno’s bills reflect charges three months in a row to “prepare for and attend the BOE meeting” as well as charges for mileage for those meetings, in addition to other district business.
- Comegno billed $1085 plus $94.20 mileage to “prepare for and attend the BOE meeting at Sparta High School” in August.
- In September Comegno billed the district $1417.50 plus $117.16 for mileage to “prepare and attend the September 23 board of education meeting” as well as teleconference and review email.
- On October 28 there were two charges to “prepare for and attend Board meeting.” The first was billed by Erin A Berman for 6.8 hours at a cost of $1190 and the second was billed by John B Comegno for 8.6 hours at a cost of $1505.
Anderson said she would be willing to consider eliminating the law firm but after additional discussion in committee meetings.
Karen Scott said the board has “had two attorneys in the past,” referring to a time when Newton law firm Morris, Downing and Sherrod was brought on by board members.
Matteson asked if there was a contract with the Comegno firm. The board member said she had asked Business Administrator Pam Hinman for a copy of it on December 12 but it had not been given to her. Hinman said she did not recall the request.
Ventresca said the new board members might not have enough experience to know how to vote on the resolution.
The vote was finally taken. It passed with no votes from Anderson, Hoover, Scott and Ventresca.
The new vice president added a second resolution for the board to consider, “while we’re on the topic.”
Grana asked for a resolution to have Hinman issue a Request for Professional Services or RFP for legal representation. Scott seconded the motion.
Bragg asked Hinman to explain the process.
Hinman said she would issue the RFP the next day. It would potentially take the newspaper until Thursday to print it. Respondents would have 20 days to submit a proposal, a time frame required by code, according to Hinman. From there she would present the proposals to the selection committee. The committee would decide whom they wanted to interview and they would then make a selection.
Ventresca objected again saying a third law firm would then be looking at the work currently being done by Comegno. “It would go to Hara and then to the new firm.”
Bragg and Grana said Hara could be the firm that they ended up selecting.
In a statement Bragg said, “The Sparta Board of Education has decided to go out for a Request for Proposal for legal services. An ad hoc committee has been formed. The Sparta Board of Education felt it was a good idea to review all legal representation options to confirm that the district's legal counsel fits the needs of the district in 2020 and beyond.”
At the meeting Hinman said it was “responsible” for boards to seek an RFP for legal representation “every three years.”
The resolution to issue an RFP for legal services passed 7-2 with Ventresca and Hoover voting no.