By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Laguna Beach school board member Dee Perry said through her attorney Tuesday that she will not move forward with suing the school district, pending an upcoming meeting with the district’s leadership and attorney, over claims she was defamed and humiliated by fellow board members.
“It is her hope that, not only will meaningful discussions take place, resolution can be achieved,” Perry’s attorney, Kathleen Loyer, said. “She is neither petulant, nor capitulating. She is dedicated to the task of representing the public who elected her. To imply otherwise is an unfortunate mischaracterization.”
Loyer added that she’s working with the Laguna Beach Unified School District’s leadership and attorneys to schedule a meeting to discuss an alternative dispute resolution for Perry’s grievances.
The tentative resolution averts a potentially costly dispute between Perry and the school district, which reached a 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 members 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.”
Vickers said the board had to arrange for counsel to represent it in the event Perry followed through on her litigation threat.
Attorney Joseph Larsen would have billed $330 per hour to the district for his time on the case, according to the agreement.
The turmoil 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.
Loyer issued a notice of intent to file a lawsuit on behalf of Perry on June 26, challenging three actions by the board, including the decision to keep her off the subcommittee and publicly accusing her of misconduct. The statements made in the decision-making process were defamatory, discriminatory, and a violation of Perry’s rights, Loyer said.
The notice stated 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.
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.
“There was a stark contrast between the indications from her attorney to meet and try to resolve as we have offered, and [board] member Perry’s public statement chastising the board for our unwillingness to work on resolving the issues,” Vickers said in a statement. “Important to keep in mind—member Perry made a personal decision to bring the NOI rather than work with us. Instead of letting us begin to move forward, tonight’s display moved us further apart by her continued public accusations.”View Our User Comment Policy