LANCASTER — Antelope Valley Union High School District’s new Los Angeles-based, $400-an-hour attorney John W. Harris, made his debut at Thursday night’s Board meeting and apparently slept through parts of the four-and-a-half-hour public portion of the meeting.
Harris leaned back in his chair and appeared to fall asleep during presentations on the California Dashboard and a school safety update, as the meeting progressed. It appeared that he slept through approximately one hour of the meeting.
Closed session after the meeting lasted another one-and-a-half hours.
Board President Robert “Bob” Davis, Vice President Victoria Ruffin and Clerk Amanda Parrell approved a three-year contract with Harris’ firm, Harris & Associates, at the Board’s Jan. 24 meeting, with trustees Jill McGrady and John Rush dissenting.
The contract was approved despite the fact that the district has in-house legal counsel and a contract with Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, one of the state’s leading law firms for educational services.
Harris sat in the audience at the beginning of the meeting. Davis called for a short recess after the Board approved the agenda, then Davis, Ruffin, Harris, District Superintendent David Vierra and District counsel Bridget Cook went to the back of the Boardroom for a discussion.
Neither McGrady, Rush, nor Parrell were allowed to join the discussion. Davis, Ruffin, Vierra, Cook and Harris emerged after about 30 minutes and Harris took a seat at the dais next to Cook.
McGrady acknowledged Harris’ presence on the dais and asked why he was at the meeting.
“Are you visiting or are we paying you?” McGrady asked.
Harris said quietly, “You’re paying me.”
McGrady added there had been no public discussion regarding his presence at the meeting and she sought to clarify it for the public’s sake.
“Could we just clarify a few things?” she asked. “It’s $400 an hour. Is that correct?”
Harris responded quietly that it was true.
He also will bill the district for his travel time, about two hours each way, and to review the agenda. Harris said he reviewed the agenda before the meeting.
“Did anyone on the Board receive any information from that? Because I believe that we should all receive that,” McGrady said.
Harris said he did not understand the question.
“When you reviewed the agenda for this evening’s meeting, did you give anyone on our Board information concerning that?” McGrady said.
Harris said he discussed the agenda with Board members, but “it’s confidential.”
“I believe if you share information with one, you have to share it with all,” McGrady said.
Harris said he would disagree with that statement.
“A Board member can call me and I would respond to that,” he said. “No action is being taken as a result of a phone call from a Board member to me.”
McGrady asked Harris who authorized him to be there. Harris said it was pursuant to his contract.
But Harris’ contract does not explicitly say that he should attend meetings. According to the contract, Harris “shall provide specialized legal services to the District on an as-needed basis, as directed by its Board of Trustees in accordance with the District’s administrative regulations for the assignment of legal counsel.”
“I just think the taxpayers need to know that we are now spending $4,000 to $5,000 per meeting for an extra,” McGrady said. “I believe that is important to know.”
She also asked Harris about a 2016 report in the Los Cerritos Community News. According to the report, Harris overbilled the Water Reclamation District of Southern California in Lakewood, about $2 million in 2013 and 2014, after a former employee of his firm produced documents that proved as much.
“Would you like to respond to that?” McGrady asked.
Harris said he did not and that it’s confidential.
“I just feel like our taxpayers need to know where our dollars are going,” McGrady said.
Harris said the articles to which she was referring are “mere allegations and that’s all I will say at this point.”
McGrady cited another article from the paper that said Harris and the water agency later entered into a confidential settlement agreement in 2016.
“That says to me, that there was some sort of ending to it,” McGrady said. “It wasn’t just an allegation.”
Harris said she could “draw any inference” she cared to.
McGrady also asked Harris if he was related to anyone on the Board, or had a personal or business relationship with anyone on the Board.
“None whatsoever,” he said.
It is not immediately clear how the Board found Harris’ firm.
McGrady said there needed to be a public discussion on how the District uses Harris’ services. Her understanding of the contract is that, as they use Harris’ services, the district would pay the $400 an hour, but not for every Board meeting.
“We were here five hours at our last meeting,” she said. “So, $400 an hour times five hours, plus the two hours here, two hours there, maybe more … I spent more than two hours on the agenda. I don’t know how many hours it took (Harris to review the agenda). But we’re beginning to look at quite a bit of money that is twice a month for the rest of the year.”
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