Bucks County Republicans understand the new Democratic majority on the Council Rock School Board has the power to hire a new district law firm. They were just surprised Democrats didn’t wait until being sworn in to get started.
The five Democrats who make up the majority after November’s election met privately — after three of the members had been elected but not yet sworn in — to pick a new district solicitor. And their choice was the prominent Democratic law firm, Rudolph Clarke.
That information was the center of a fiery discussion during the Jan. 18 board meeting. Michael Clarke, whose firm was hired in a 5-4 vote at that meeting, joined the board after the vote to insist the Democrats had done nothing wrong.
According to the news outlet Broad + Liberty, Clarke describes himself as a “good Democrat,” and he does a lot of business with Democrats in state and local government.
“Rudolph Clarke retains three Montgomery County state legislators, including House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, a Bucks County state senator and Democratic Party chairman, and, until recently, former Delaware County state representative Mike Zabel, who resigned earlier this year amid sexual harassment allegations,” the news site reported. “The firm is a major contributor to Montgomery County Democrats’ campaigns at the state and local levels and has demonstrated particular expertise in flipping local boards to Democratic control over the past several election cycles.”
State Sen. Steven Santarsiero (D-Bucks), who chairs the Bucks County Democratic Party, is of counsel at Rudolph Clarke.
The law firm and its attorneys regularly contribute to Democratic candidates, and the firm made donations to candidates for the Council Rock School Board.
“Receiving political contributions from someone you eventually hire does not create a conflict of interest,” Clarke said.
The four Republican board members, who abstained because they said they were not told about the move to change the solicitor until the Friday before the meeting, had their votes switched to ‘no’ once Clarke came in. He said they could not abstain on the matter.
Board President Yota Palli tried several times to cut off questions from the GOP minority and call the vote on the new solicitor.
“My question is, who was involved in the conversation with Rudolph Clarke? How did this come about?” asked board member Bob Hickey. “Somehow, someone decided. Who? We obviously did not talk about one of the largest vendors being changed.”
Hickey added, “I was not included. I don’t know if anybody else was. At least four of us weren’t aware of it.”
Board Member Joseph Hildago said they usually would discuss something like this in committee, and there would be requests for proposals.
“The five of you met,” said Hildago. “You did not disclose it until last Friday. That was the first any one of us got a whiff you were doing this.”
Palli said Republicans were not included in her “shared vision” discussion with the newly elected but unsworn members. However, she told the disgruntled Republicans they had been given plenty of time to vet the law firm. “It is uncomfortable not to be in the majority,” she told the four dissenting members several times.
“As with judges, this is supposed to be an apolitical position,” Republican Board Member Michael Roosevelt said of the legal council job. “Our relationship with Eastburn and Gray has gone on for 40 years. I don’t think this is a big deal to have a discussion about the agenda. There are a lot of questions that haven’t been addressed. Timeline. Procedures.”
Clarke said his firm would charge the same rates as the previous solicitor so the district would not incur additional expenses. However, because the business office could not find a letter of intent from Eastburn and Gray, they are figuring out what the rates were from bills.
A spokesperson for the district did not respond when asked how much it paid its solicitor in 2023.
However, a long-time school district solicitor who represents several Delaware Valley school districts told DVJournal on background that for a district without significant problems, the fees, including a retainer and $200 for hourly work, would likely run to $200,000 a year. Legal representation for special education, labor, construction, and bonds would be at a higher rate and are often handled by a different firm.
As for the board changing its solicitor, he said, “You need to trust your lawyer.”
During public comment, resident Jonathan Simmons questioned why the board chose Rudolph Clarke.
“This new board majority that everyone seems so enamored with, they labeled themselves ‘Together for Council Rock’ for the last year or so. I think they should have probably called themselves ‘Together for the Bucks County Democratic Party,’” said Simmons.
“I think you owe the community an explanation about how this firm was selected. Did it have political overtones or undertones? Were bids solicited?
“And finally, was the sole consideration just to give the business to the guy whose firm runs the Democratic Party in Bucks County? I think you need to answer those questions,” Simmons added.
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