A recall effort against three board members of the Fairfax School District, including president Palmer Moland, was approved Thursday by the Kern County Elections Division.
Fellow trustees Alma Rios and Jose Luis Tapia are also the target of the recall effort by district employees, parents and community members. The trio have formed a majority voting bloc on the school board on a series of controversial decisions that have riled the community, caught the attention of a grand jury and earned an audit from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools’ Fiscal Crisis & Management Analysis Team.
Pamela Padilla, a print room aide in the district who is part of the recall effort, said she had become impatient that it had taken time to approve the recall petition.
The recall petition was delivered to the three members at their May 4 meeting, so the community has been ready for the next step.
“All our hard work and dedication to our community and our school district has finally paid off with the approval of the petition,” Padilla said. “Finally, a glimpse of hope for all of us in this community.”
The recall effort was officially approved Thursday afternoon, according to the county’s Registrar of Voters, Mary Bedard.
Padilla said the people behind the recall effort are prepared. They have signs ready to set up in the area to let people know about the effort. They plan to host events where people can sign. They have plans to head to Walmart. They may send out mailers. The target goal is 2,000 voters.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that hard once we get out there,” Padilla said.
The board’s spending on law firms is what attracted the scrutiny of a Kern County grand jury, whose May 27 report stated that the board should “examine the funds spent on legal services, justify the need for multiple law firms.”
Padilla said it’s been hard to wait for the recall to be approved while the board majority continues to make decisions that she said are hurting the district’s finances.
At a special board meeting on June 24, a motion failed in a 2-2 vote that would allow the district’s longtime general counsel, Schools Legal Service, to finish two cases it had been working on. Interim superintendent Lora Brown asked the board to approve the measure.
Trustees Tapia, Rios and Moland voted to oust Schools Legal Service on May 22. However, because the district didn’t give the firm proper notice to bow out of its contract, it’s not off the hook; it owes the firm $47,723 as of July 1 for the 2021-22 school year, according to its publicly adopted rate schedule, Schools Legal Service general counsel Grant Herndon said.
Tapia was absent from the June 24 meeting but both Rios and Moland voted against Schools Legal Service finishing the cases.
Because the two cases are urgent, the firm taking on those cases is Olivarez, Madruga, Lemieux, O’Neil LLP (OMLO), which Rios, Moland and Tapia voted to bring on May 27 as the district’s interim law firm.
It’s not clear how many billable hours it would take for the new firm to get up to speed on the case. Brown said she couldn’t go into details because they were ongoing legal issues, but she emphasized that it would take time for a new firm to catch up with the cases.
“These have been two ongoing matters that we are at the very end of,” Brown told trustees at June’s meeting. “I can’t give you an estimate, just that it would be numerous hours for a new law firm to catch up to speed and be immersed into these two matters.”
Rather than paying out of the retainer that the district already owes to Schools Legal Service, it will be paying by the hour to the Los Angeles-based OMLO, which charges $220 per hour for a partner and $185 per hour for a paralegal.
“I got mad, because that’s a lot of money that is being taken out of the general fund again,” Padilla said.
Padilla said she filed a complaint through the State Bar of California against Elana Rivkin-Haas, a partner with OMLO, who was present at June 24’s meeting. The complaint states that Rivkin-Haas “assumed control and presided over the board meeting” instead of recommending a president pro tempore as required by the board’s bylaws. It said that doing so when there was an agenda item where her firm stood to benefit constituted a conflict of interest.
“In short, she presided over a vote that benefited her and/or her firm, costing the district thousands of dollars in legal fees when the District is already under audit for fiscal mismanagement,” the complaint stated.
The State Bar of California could not confirm whether it had received the complaint or was investigating it. Complaints are only made public if there’s enough evidence to file disciplinary charges against an attorney, said spokeswoman Teresa Ruano.
Rivkin-Haas said she had not been aware of the complaint and defended her actions at the June 24 meeting.
“All actions taken were lawful,” Rivkin-Haas said. “No violations of law occurred.”