By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The dispute between a Laguna Beach school board member and the School District reached a potentially costly landmark Thursday, following a school board vote to spend up to $50,000 for a top law firm to defend the district in future litigation.
Board President Jan Vickers, board member Carol Normandin, and board member James Kelly voted during a special meeting to approve an agreement with Rutan & Tucker, LLP. Board member Peggy Wolff and Perry were absent.
“The Board is resolute in its position that Dee Perry’s threat to initiate litigation and seek monetary damages is without merit,” Vickers wrote in a statement. “Political disputes do not belong in the courts, and the Board actions she challenges were lawful and in good faith.”
She added the Board had to arrange for counsel to represent it in the event Perry follows through on her litigation threat.
Attorney Joseph Larsen will bill $330 per hour to the District for his time on the case, according to the agreement.
The trouble started last December when the Board passed Perry over for appointment as board president after she served as clerk. Earlier this year, Perry publicly shared a letter from the school district’s attorney, Mark Bresee, which Bresee said included a confidential legal opinion. The retired teacher’s fellow School Board members later admonished her and created a controversial subcommittee to privately discuss the matter in June.
Perry’s attorney, Kathleen Loyer, issued a notice of intent to file a lawsuit on behalf of Perry on June 26, 2019, challenging three actions by the Board, including the decision to keep her off the subcommittee and publicly accusing her of misconduct. Loyer said the statements made in the decision-making process were defamatory, discriminatory, and a violation of her rights.
The notice states an intent to file a lawsuit seeking a restraining order and at least $25,000 in damages for emotional distress and a hostile work environment.
Bresee summarized the District’s positions on why Perry wouldn’t be victorious in court, including the argument that the board members’ votes and statements made in public meetings are protected activity under the anti-SLAPP statute, which aims to prevent chilling of public participation in government.
“[T]here are several preliminary obstacles to the viability of Ms. Perry’s threatened lawsuit, all of which arise out of the fact that she is a sitting public official, a school board member who has been publicly critical of her colleagues and employees of the district,” Bresee wrote.
Loyer confirmed Friday that she had received the District’s letter but declined to comment on the letter’s arguments until she has thoroughly read it and consulted Perry.
At the Aug. 13 board meeting, Perry and her fellow board members expressed their desire to reconcile their differences and moved forward on school district business. At that meeting, the Board voted against retaining Aspen Group International, a consultant team that advises public and nonprofit boards on governance strategy and protocols. The contract would have cost taxpayers $50,000 plus travel, lodging, and meal expenses for at least five days of board member training.
“We are also serious in conveying a desire to resolve the issues and get our focus back on students, where it belongs, and I hope [board] member Perry feels the same way,” Vickers said.
In a letter to the Independent, Laguna Beach resident Sheri Morgan criticized the Board’s action to prevent Perry from participating in the confidential matters subcommittee.
“Have Perry’s rights been violated? What about the voters’ rights who put her in office? By removing her from issues as determined by the board’s discretion, yes, the same ones that voted to exclude Dee, we are not fairly represented,” Morgan wrote.
At a July board meeting, Normandin said the Board has never silenced Perry during its public discussions, but it’s also vital for the board’s majority to confidentially discuss its response to legal matters, including Perry’s notice of intent to file a lawsuit.