In a move that has caused some controversy, the Council Rock School Board last week voted 5-4 along party lines to oust their solicitor, a firm that has worked with the district for 40 years.
The school board ended their use of Doylestown Borough-based Eastburn and Gray and hired a new one, Rudolph Clarke, a firm based in Montgomery County with an office in Bucks County.
Rudolph Clarke already represents Newtown Borough and previously represented the Pennsbury School District until the board opted to fire them in 2022.
The board, which recently flipped from a Republican majority to Democratic majority first time in Council Rock history, wasted little time making the switch.
Republican members of the board, including Mike Roosevelt, Bob Hickey, Joe Hidalgo, and Anne Horner, were highly critical of the decision as they said they were completely “shut out” from the decision.
The Republicans stated that School Board President Yota Palli, along with fellow Democratic board members Ed Tate, Tracey Osecki, Nicole Khan, and Linda Stone, purposely excluded them from the process of selecting a new solicitor for the district and did not even notify them until a week before the meeting despite reportedly having conversations with Rudolph Clarke that dated back to last November.
Former Council Rock Superintendent Robert Fraser opined on the matter on X shortly after the new solicitor was named.
“Don’t know why the Council Rock School Board decided to end relations with solicitor Rob Cox and Eastburn and Gray. What I do know is that Mr. Cox is easily the best solicitor with whom I have worked. CRSD is better because of having had his services,” he shared on social media.
The board’s previous solicitor from Eastburn and Gray was not present for the meeting.
Palli said that she asked the attorney if they would be present and they declined to attend.
In a statement explaining the change in solicitor, Palli said the following.
“During the last election, our community voted for change in Council Rock. We have new leadership that plans to take the district in a new direction. Changing solicitors is not unusual when new majorities are elected to school boards. They typically make changes like this because they want to make sure that they have the best team on board to implement their vision.”
“Rudolph Clarke is one of the leading education law firms in southeastern Pennsylvania with recognized expertise in right-to-know law, tax assessments, labor relations, and construction law among other areas. Not only will the district get the benefit of their expertise but our legal expenses will not increase because they will charge the same as our last solicitor,” she stated.
Palli added that she called all members of the board a week prior to the meeting where the issue of changing solicitors would be discussed to let the board members know that this change was coming. She said that a week’s notice was plenty of time for the members who may have questions or concerns to reach out to her or Rudolph Clarke.
Some board members still felt that they were excluded from the decision-making process, including Bob Hickey.
“I was notified as a board member ten minutes before the board agenda of this action. I don’t know how to even vote on this measure because I wasn’t a part of any of the discussions or anything,” he said.
“I’m hoping you can give me the timeline of how we got to this point where we’re now making a motion to change solicitor. Please give me the timeline of what happened and when it happened because at some point there was an idea and now it’s a motion. Who was involved in those conversations? How did this come about? Who did you speak with? How did we get here?,” he asked.
Responding to Hickey’s comments, Palli said, “You had a whole week to meet with Rudolph Clarke to ask questions to find out who they are and why we think that they were the best firm right now for Council Rock but you did not do that.”
Hidalgo disputed Palli’s comments and agreed with many of Hickey’s points.
“I wasn’t offered to share the vision, we never talked about changing the solicitor. Your response can’t just be that we had a week to ask questions. There’s a lot of stuff that happened before that and the purpose of this meeting tonight is to get all of our answers to the questions that we have,” Hidalgo said.
“You didn’t disclose this to me, Mr. Hickey, Mr. Roosevelt, Ms. Horner, or even I think Andy Sanko until last Friday,” Hidalgo added. “That’s the first time that any of us got a whiff that you were doing this. My point is that you need to explain the timeline because this is our chance to ask these questions. Why did the five of you decide to fire Eastburn and Gray?”
Hidalgo pressed Palli on which other firms were interviewed and considered by the board to be the district’s new solicitor and Palli declined to comment.
She simply said, “We considered multiple firms” to which Hidalgo responded, “Who’s we?” When Palli said she wouldn’t disclose which other law firms were interviewed, Hidalgo shot back with, “I’m glad that’s on the public record.”
Board member Mike Roosevelt added, “This community is due a discussion. You indicated that there would be a discussion. It’s a very simple to be able to respond to these questions with a timeline, especially as someone who values transparency. We need to know the process, the metrics, the framing, and the preparation for this motion and how we got here.”
“As far as the shared vision, this was not part of the conversation that you and I had and my understanding of the definition of shared vision is for everybody that is on the body to have a discussion and find where there’s common ground, not for one person to impress upon what they want to do and have the others accept it. That’s not a shared vision, that’s a forced vision.”
Responding to Roosevelt and the other board members who expressed concerns about transparency, Khan said the board has known about the solicitor issue for a week.
“If we were attempting to be secretive or non-transparent, we would have waited to publish the agenda 24 hours before which is the minimum requirement and has often been done in the past. As my colleagues have said, many of us believe that the school district would be better served with Rudolph Clarke as our solicitor,” Khan said.
Palli added, “You have to understand that we have a new majority that was elected by the public during the last election. So this new majority and whoever else wants to join us has decided to change solicitors because we felt this is the best that was needed for the new direction we would like Council Rock to take. It’s as simple as that.”
Hickey disagreed and brought up the issue of campaign contributions.
“I think anyone who was a part of the four who ran should definitely abstain from voting in an effort to avoid a conflict of interest. One of the members of this new firm contributed directly to your campaign so in order to eliminate any impropriety or question of impropriety, I think it best that you should abstain,” Hickey said.
Hickey added, “I feel like five members got together and if they didn’t break the letter of the law, they sure broke the spirit of the law as it was meant to be. I’m not saying I disagree with getting a new vendor I just wasn’t a part of the process. You could have at least involved three of us in this conversation but like I said, transparent is anything but what happened.”
As a counterpoint, board member Linda Stone pointed out that Rudolph Clarke has made campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans just as Eastburn and Gray has. She also mentioned that changing solicitors is very common among townships and school boards and this change is no different.
Board vice president Ed Tate added, “I will support the appointment of Rudolph Clarke simply on merit. I’ve done my homework, I’ve done research, and I’ve talked to other attorneys at other law firms.”
Roosevelt directly asked Tate how long he and the other majority board members had to select a new firm to serve as solicitor and Tate said he’d “rather not get into the details of it all but we did our due diligence”.
Palli stated she understood that it is “uncomfortable not to be in the majority but that’s the situation now.”
Palli added that she felt the new majority has been very transparent with the public.
“I understand you may not be happy with the outcome of the election but the voters have spoken and we need to vote on this,” she said.
Hickey opined that the issue should be tabled until further discussion can occur.
In the 5-4 party-line vote, Hickey’s motion was denied and the issue continued to be debated.
Palli reiterated that the board wishes to select a new firm to serve as solicitor to point the district in the “best possible direction.”
Agreeing with Hickey, Roosevelt said, “The solicitor represents the whole board, not just the majority. This is a non-political body. For 43 years, it was unclear whether this was a majority led by Republicans or Democrats. This is a significant moment in Council Rock history where politics is coming in from this new leadership. I don’t want that to happen.”
When asked to vote on the matter, board member Anne Horner said, “I abstain. We have no solicitor and I do not feel comfortable in this situation at all for the public I was elected to serve. I was not told until last Friday when I received a call from board leadership and was told because of the majority this was who they were going with.”
In abstaining from the vote, Roosevelt said, “Without a solicitor, this body doesn’t have proper legal advice. This is a very difficult area we find ourselves in and to hear that the majority is pushing this through is troubling. My concern is all of you took an oath to fidelity and know the importance of transparency. I’m abstaining from this vote and I implore you not to continue.”
The meeting wrapped up around 11 p.m.