A hearing conducted Tuesday morning, May 7, in the 136th District Court of Jefferson County essentially ended a nearly yearlong battle for documents waged by two sitting Beaumont Independent School District trustees against the entity they serve. BISD trustees Tom Neild and Mike Neil filed the suit against the school district and, originally, its attorney Tanner Hunt after learning they were being denied information requested in the wake of new superintendent Dr. Timothy Chargois’ botched employment contract, which came in the form of an automatic pay raise that board members expressly wanted excluded. Both plaintiff trustees said they were told no such automatic pay raise provision would be approved; however, according to Neil and Neild, last-minute changes allowed such a provision to be signed into contract. The trustees then sought documentation to reveal how such a clause was entertained and ultimately accepted, but as stated in court filings against BISD, they were unable to secure all the requested information despite being elected officials of the district’s school board.
According to information filed in court on behalf of Neil and Neild, “Based on private and public published representations of other BISD trustees, including (Board President Woodrow) Reece, plaintiffs believe also other trustees were likewise duped regarding the contents of the final proposed agreement they had approved, and Reece signed on May 1, 2012.
“Needless to say, the public reaction was and remains widespread and negative.”
At the recent May 7 court hearing, Trustee Neil gave sworn testimony to the court that he was informed the information he sought – specifically e-mail exchanges between BISD’s attorney and the attorney representing superintendent candidate Chargois – did not exist.
“They did not deny (giving me) the documents; they denied the existence of the documents,” Neil said. But, according to him, common sense told him those documents did exist. After filing suit against BISD and Hunt, the documents Neil requested were found to exist – and, after deposing Chargois’ attorney, the trustee was given the requested correspondence. Hunt released documents the day after the lawsuit was filed against him, and he was removed from further legal proceedings.
“I went through the chain of command and requested documents that I felt had to be in existence before I ever filed the lawsuit,” Neil said. “The documents were not provided and I could tell by the context of some of the communications that there had to be other documents out there.”
Neil and Neild agree that at this point in time, all of the documents that they requested had “probably” been provided.
“Accordingly, with there being no issue left regarding the trustees’ access to documents to litigate, Judge Milton Shuffield dismissed the case as being ‘moot,’” stated Mike Getz, an attorney for the plaintiff trustees. “This case was always about a school board trustee’s inherent right to access documents.
“Our clients knew there were documents out there that were not being produced, even after they were told that they had received everything. They had to actually file a lawsuit in order to obtain all of the documents that they requested. They feel vindicated in their belief that they were being lied to. It is a shame that my clients had to go to such lengths to obtain what they should have been provided in the first place.”
Vann deCordova, also an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit was necessary to prove that no one, not even BISD, is above the law.
“We’ll do this again if (Neil and Neild) are denied access again,” he said.
David Bernsen, on behalf of BISD, filed a counter argument in the court claiming that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was “frivolous,” and seeking reimbursement of approximately $70,000 in attorney fees paid by the district to defend the trustees’ allegations.
According to Getz, the fact that information was received only after his clients filed a lawsuit proved that the measure was undoubtedly “not frivolous in the least.”
Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.