WOOD RIVER JCT. — In Chariho’s proposed $57.9 million budget for 2019, $88,218 has been set aside for legal fees that might be incurred should the school district lose one of several lawsuits filed against Chariho by a group of plaintiffs that includes two of its own School Committee members, Georgia Ure and Melania Van der Hooft.
Attorney Jon Anderson is on retainer to Chariho, but the district would likely pay additional legal fees and fines if it loses any of the four lawsuits filed by a single attorney, Paige A. Munro-Delotto.
Three of the lawsuits involve Open Meetings Act violations, most of which have been reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office, with findings in favor of the School Committee except for two technical issues. The fourth suit, filed by the same attorney, must also be defended.
Chariho Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci expressed concern that the proposed amount might not be sufficient.
“There are four lawsuits against the district right now by the same attorney,” he said. “Should the district be on the hook for legal fees for any of those lawsuits, that won’t even be enough.”
The lawsuits have divided the School Committee, upsetting the members who have been named as respondents. Their anger has been directed at Ure, who is a plaintiff in all the lawsuits, and to a lesser extent, Van der Hooft, who is named in one of them.
Charlestown member Donna Chambers, who is a respondent in three of the lawsuits, addressed the issue at Tuesday’s budget workshop.
“That’s an increase that we need to budget because of the lawsuits that are currently pending,” she said.
“And if we lose those lawsuits, we pay the attorney and we pay the [court] costs,” committee Chairwoman Sylvia Stanley added.
Member Stephen Huzyk said the taxpayers would bear the cost.
“This is all on the taxpayers, these lawsuits, however it ends up. It’s all on the backs of the taxpayers … so the lawsuits are against the taxpayers,” he said.
At the Chariho Omnibus meeting the next day, some committee members, as well as a representative of the Friends of Chariho advocacy group, expressed frustration that first Van der Hooft, then Ure, had left the meeting before it ended after a brief discussion of the legal fees. The two departures resulted in a lack of quorum.
Ure said she had made an effort to attend the Omnibus meeting because several committee members could not be there, and there was a question of whether there would be a quorum. She noted that her departure had nothing to do with the discussion of the legal fees budget line item and that she had left simply because it was getting late.
“The reason that I had to be there — most of Charlestown [School Committee members] didn’t show up at all, so they didn’t have a quorum,” she said. “So I rearranged my whole schedule to be there. When I left, the meeting was as far as I could see, if it wasn’t over, it was close to it.”
Ure suggested that the district was politicizing the issue.
“It’s portrayed that it’s all this particular issue over the Open Meetings laws. It’s not. It’s the politics of it or whatever you want to call it that are trying to to make it seem that way,” she said.
The School Committee will continue its discussion of the lawsuits at its Jan. 16 meeting. The item has been added to the agenda at the request of member Ryan Callahan.