Chris Welch and his Proviso high school board colleagues have, in the past, raised eyebrows with the high legal fees they’ve voted to approve for District 209’s law firm, Odelson and Sterk. Lately, Welch has become the object of similar criticism in Bellwood Elementary School District 88, which has paid over $184,000 in legal fees since Welch was rehired as the school board’s attorney in April.
Welch said the fees are justified by the abnormally high amounts of litigation in which the district has been engaged as of late. “Since May, District 88 has been a very busy district,” he said.
During this time period, Welch said, the district successfully negotiated two union contracts and has been sued by the State’s Attorneys Office for a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act. The district was also sued by two former board members who alleged that the board acted outside its authority when it declared their seats vacant because they no longer lived in the district.
Records provided by Welch indicate that much of the billing was indeed related to these cases.
Some District 88 board members, however, say that the payments are excessive despite the recent litigation. “I used to work at D209 and was on that district’s union board ” we never included an attorney until the last meeting,” said board member Antonette Dorris.
Dorris said that Welch’s legal advice is exceedingly vague and rarely put in writing. “His legal advice is so vague that he allows the district to walk into countless lawsuits,” she said.
She noted that a large portion of Welch’s charges are for phone calls with district officials, many of which are listed on the bills as having lasted several hours.
Welch, who bills the district $180 per hour for his services, said the board has voted unanimously each month to approve the payments, and questioned why board members raise objections to the media rather than at meetings.
“A lot of things going on right now are directly related to me expressing an intention to run against Karen Yarbrough (for 7th District State Rep.),” said Welch.
Welch also noted that about $32,000 of the district’s legal payments went to attorney Roy McCampell, who was hired as chief negotiator during collective bargaining. Several of McCampell’s charges, however, are for phone calls and meetings with Welch for which both were paid.
Welch said that his four partners at James J. Roche also work on District 88 legal matters, which is verified by the records he provided.
In October, Welch billed District 88 $41,640, his highest amount yet. Though the union contracts had already been largely completed by this time, Welch said the charges were largely for his work revising the board’s policy manual, which he said has not been amended since 1996.
Dorris said that Welch’s work on the policy manual was sloppy, noting that typos throughout the documents seem to indicate that Welch simply duplicated District 209’s manual and changed the name of the district.
According to Dorris, Welch was supposed to have completed the policy manual by September. She suspected that Welch stalled the process so that he could use the large payment to fund his campaign for state rep.
Welch was fired as District 88’s attorney in February for unstated reasons, but was reinstated after the April election. Dorris was one of the two board members who voted against his firing and said that in his first run as the district’s attorney, Welch charged the district reasonable.
Odelson and Sterk, who contributed at least $3,000 to Welch’s last campaign for school board president, charged District 209 over $88,000 during the 2004-05 school year and over $202,000 in 2003-04, according to documents attained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Forest Park School District 91 is budgeted to spend $22,000 on legal fees this year, according to Mary Ann Spratt, Superintendent Randy Tinder’s assistant. She said the figure is substantially higher than normal because lawyers had worked on union contract negotiations.