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Board needs more favorable attorney contract

Now that Hernando County School Board attorney Joseph Johnston Jr. has announced his retirement, board members have decided to advertise here and in three neighboring counties for an attorney to work under a similar contractual agreement.

The board is to be commended for rejecting Johnston's recommendation to hire a full-time board attorney. Johnston, whose 40-year tenure in the position will end in early November, had recommended the full-time attorney to replace him, citing the ever-increasing legal workload in the district.

Fortunately, the board was not inclined to go that route. But in preparation for interviewing the lawyers who will respond to the advertisement, the board members should consider making some significant, money-saving changes in the contract.

In its present contract with Johnston, the school district pays him a $1,500-a-month retainer to: attend all the meetings; draft and review resolutions and contracts (specifically excluding construction contracts); stay on top of court decisions concerning school law and directives from the state Department of Education; return correspondence; and make monthly progress reports on his work.

Any other work costs the board $125 an hour, except for court and trial work, which earns him $175 an hour.

In calendar year 1991, Johnson earned $18,000 for his retainer, but the district paid him $76,223, which means work not covered in the contract totaled $58,223, or more than three times the retainer. An undetermined amount of money was paid to other attorneys for handling such matters as labor contracts and negotiations, or work on bond issues.

From Jan. 1 to Aug. 19 of this year, Johnston already has billed the district for $72,242, which is only $3,981 less than he billed in all of 1991.

Neighboring Citrus County, which has a school district with slightly fewer students (12,500 compared to 14,000 in Hernando), also contracts with a private attorney, Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick, who has worked for the district since 1978. He is paid a monthly retainer of $1,250, and bills the district $100 an hour only for "extraordinary expenses." In calendar year 1991, his total compensation reached $23,132, with $15,000 of that being the retainer.

Clearly, the board needs to negotiate a better deal than existed with Johnston.

For example, Johnston's contract allowed him to charge the district for fielding board members' telephone calls, conversations for which he itemizes his bill to the tune of $2.08 a minute, although he usually rounds it off to five-minute intervals. His meter also is turned on if the superintendent, or one of his principals or department heads, requests a conference.

It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that the monthly retainer the board pays the attorney would include those type of services. In comparison, no such billings are found in Citrus.

The board should ensure that such matters are spelled out in a new contract.

The board also should evaluate whether district staff might not be able to perform some of the jobs for which they have routinely paid Johnston. Is it necessary for the board attorney, for example, to examine all construction contracts submitted as bids, regardless of the size of the job?

For instance, in April, Johnston charged the district $187.50 for reviewing contract proposals on the construction of lockers and lighting at Central High School's football stadium. Shouldn't a knowledgeable department head and superintendent be able to accomplish such a perfunctory task on their own? Although it is certainly prudent for the attorney to review the contract before it is signed, it might often be unnecessary to be involved on both ends of the process.

Better yet, the board could eliminate altogether the clause that allows for extra fees for reviewing construction-related contracts.

Ironically, the assignment of drafting a proposed contract for a new attorney may fall to Johnston, who may charge the district $125 an hour for doing so.

The board members should make sure they're getting the most bang for their buck when it's time to strike a new deal.

Not a feather in my cap

George Pratt had done it once a year for 12 straight years.

He had every intention of doing it again Oct. 3.

But this year, Mother Nature stepped in and plucked the plume from Pratt's plans, and at the same time, left me with egg on my face.

Last Sunday, this column featured Pratt, who is the man who exterminates the chickens used in the annual World Chicken Pluckin' Championship in Spring Hill. I interviewed Pratt on Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to begin his annual ritual, and filed the column before the feathers were scheduled to fly Saturday afternoon.

As you will remember, this area experienced some pretty nasty weather last Saturday and the contest was canceled. Unfortunately, I was out of town and not aware of the severity of the weather or the cancellation.

Consequently, the column, which mainly was a feature story on Pratt, wrongly stated that he had killed the chickens in preparation for the contest. He did not kill the chickens, and I apologize to any readers I may have misled.

By predicting the future, and then not verifying that prediction before deadline, I really threw the readers a fowl ball.

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