By Kevin Kelley
A proposal by school board candidate Robert Bodi for the municipal law department to handle the school district’s routine legal affairs would require passage of a new law by Westlake City Council.
On his campaign website, Bodi calls on the Westlake City Schools to utilize “the free services of the Westlake Law Department for its routine legal work” rather than outsource the work to attorneys.
“Routine legal services should be provided by the Westlake Law Department, not high-priced law firms,” Bodi’s website states.
The Ohio Revised Code states that the legal advisor to boards of education shall be the law director of the municipality within the public school district’s boundaries. The state law indicates that the municipal law director shall provide legal services to public school districts without any additional monetary compensation.
The Westlake City Charter states that, in addition to serving the mayor and municipal departments, the law director shall perform all duties imposed by law on municipal law directors “unless otherwise provided by ordinance of Council.”
But in 2000, Westlake City Council passed just such an ordinance, limiting the law director’s duties to serving the mayor and various municipal departments, boards and commissions.
Therefore, under the legal concept of “home rule,” the City Charter and 2000 ordinance trump the Ohio Revised Code provision, according to Westlake Assistant Law Director Robin Leasure.
A new ordinance repealing the language of the law passed 11 years ago would have to be passed by City Council before the municipal law department could provide legal services to the Westlake City Schools, Leasure said.
Leasure said she was not aware of many municipal law departments that provide legal services to public school districts, but she had not studied the matter.
The 2000 ordinance, which reorganized the law department, cited the increased caseload at the Rocky River Municipal Court. The ordinance passed unanimously, with affirmative votes from current council members Ken Brady, Ed Hack and Michael O’Donnell. Council President Mike Killeen was absent from the meeting at which the vote was taken.
Bodi, an intellectual property attorney and partner at the law firm of Pearne & Gordon LLP, said his proposal needs to be further investigated. He said it might be worth it to pursue the issue with the city.
“These are certainly the kinds of things the school board should look into in order to save money,” Bodi told West Life.
Recent court rulings that have limited home rule exemptions for cities might make the exemption given to the law director by the 2000 ordinance illegal, Bodi said.
Bodi acknowledged there will be some circumstances, such as the tax abatement agreement between the schools and American Greetings, where the district will want to rely on its own legal counsel.
Superintendent Dan Keenan told West Life that, when he was assistant superintendent of the Kenston Local Schools, that district utilized the legal services of the Geauga County prosecutor from time to time. Shortly after being appointed Westlake superintendent in 2007, Keenan asked Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough if the district could utilize the city’s legal department. Citing the 2000 ordinance, Clough said no, Keenan recalled.
The Westlake City Schools does make use of legal services provided by the Ohio School Board Association. The district’s membership fee for that organization is $9,166 annually.
Parma is one such city where the law department provides some services to the school district.
Tim Miller, Parma’s assistant law director, told West Life that under the agreement, which dates to 1996, the municipal law department provides only limited services to the school district.
“It’s pretty rare,” Miller said, adding that for the last decade, the city law department has handled, on average, only about one legal issue a year for the school district.