In a surprise move Tuesday, one Polk County School Board member questioned renewing the school board’s attorney’s contract citing an ongoing conflict of interest and “concerns” about the lawyer’s performance.
Freshman Board Member Hugh Berryman said at Tuesday’s school board workshop he would not support the automatic renewal of Board Attorney Wes Bridges’ contract and was joined by Board Member Lori Cunningham.
“I have concerns about our attorney’s duties and performance,” Berryman said, admitting Bridges had served the board well recently when the board had been caught up in media scrutiny over bullying issues.
“He is knowledgeable and has advised us well,” Berryman said. “Is he the best we can hire? Probably not. I still have concerns about the conflict of interest.”
Bridges is married to Carolyn Bridges, who recently was moved from one senior director’s position in the school district’s hierarchy to another to eliminate that potential conflict. Mrs. Bridges was over charter schools which also has to be reviewed by Bridges for legality.
“I feel that when he and Mrs. Bridges married, he should have stepped aside,” Berryman said. “With a senior director as his wife, there will be a conflict of interest. They talk to each other.”
“I feel Wes is lacking in his performance as general counsel,” echoed Cunningham. “I just never had the opportunity to talk about it.”
The issue surfaced when Bridges and Internal Auditor Sheila Phelps’ contracts were presented for renewal in the board’s pre-meeting workshop. Both Bridges and Phelps have had three-year contracts with the board which have been extended annually for the past two years, giving them an end date of 2016.
Bridges, seemingly also caught unawares by Berryman and Cunningham’s comments, maintained that he had contacted the Florida Bar Association about the potential ethics issue when the issue first arose.
“I was told there was no conflict legally,” he said, adding he had “tried to provide quality advice on sensitive issues.”
He also explained that his contract further required that board members were to provide him written notice that his performance was questioned and be given an opportunity to correct any perceived failings on his part. “If there is a problem, I will correct it.”
Bridges has received “met expectations” reviews from all board members except Berryman who believed as a freshman board member he could not evaluate Bridges this year.
Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy told the board that her perception was that the conflict of interest had been dealt with when Ms. Bridges was transferred to another post and that Bridges had “been invaluable in dealing with recent issues and worked with me as late as midnight to see I had the right information I needed to deal with major legal questions in these matters.”
Board Chairman Hazel Sellers also said, “Wes has been invaluable in this school year and the evaluations should be the driving tool here. A majority of his work is District work and he does it well.”
Charter school issues were farmed out to a local law firm until Mrs. Bridges was transferred to another department, the attorney explained.
“That was done to avoid even the appearance of possible conflicts,” Bridges said.
After the revelatory discussion, the board decided to readdress the contract discussion at the November board meeting since no official action could be taken in a workshop and the issue had not been advertised on the board’s Oct. 22 meeting agenda.