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baltimoresun.com

Board chairwoman Siddiqui calls recess to stop Dyer from talking

By Sara Toth, stoth@patuxent.com

7:27 PM EDT, September 14, 2011

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As Board of Education member Allen Dyer's impeachment case progresses at the state level, his battles with fellow board members at the county level are continuing.

Arguments between Dyer and his fellow board members are nothing new, but for the first time in recent memory, one of those disagreements led to an abrupt halt of a board meeting.

The board was minutes away from approving contracts to three law firms at its meeting Thursday, Sept. 8, when Dyer voiced concern over a conflict of interest he believed existed with one of those firms.

"What I saw was a firm who did not give information to this board about serving two masters," he said. "One being this board and the other being a superintendent, and that is a direct conflict."

Board member Frank Aquino cautioned Dyer to not continue if he was planning in any way to impugn the firm in question.

Dyer did continue for several minutes, rebuffing the heated protests from several board members.

"If you're going to release confidential information, stop right now," board chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said.

Dyer countered, saying the information he was about to divulge was public record, finally naming the firm in question and ignoring Siddiqui's hammering of the gavel, calling him out of order.

Halfway through Dyer's naming of Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennet & Scherr as the firm in question, Siddiqui rose, adjourned the meeting for a temporary recess, and swiftly left the room. Some board members followed.

Audience members sat waiting for an hour for the meeting to reconvene.

A routine action

Approving bids and contracts is a routine action, one that takes place early in the board's meetings. Approval usually takes a matter of seconds. The contracts being awarded to the law firms, however, were being awarded for the first time.

During the recess, Patti Caplan, the school system's spokeswoman, said the board consulting several law firms at once is nothing new; each firm has its area of expertise and advises the board accordingly. Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scherr (formerly Reese & Carney) has been advising the board for more than three decades and is also the firm defending the board against Dyer in his open litigation against it.

Dyer's lengthy list of legal actions — he has sued the board both before and during his time on it — led the board in June to request that the state Board of Education remove him from its ranks on charges of misconduct. Dyer filed a motion to dismiss the request, and the case is set to go before an administrative law judge at the end of the month.

When board members re-entered the room at about 5:30 p.m. — the delayed meeting would wind up going until 11 p.m. that night — Siddiqui thanked those present for their patience.

"I suspended the meeting in order to ascertain that in moving forward, no business or company would be slandered or the board risk further legal liability," Siddiqui said.

Dyer was allowed by the board to disclose what conflict he said existed on the part of the law firm.

In 2000, Judith Bresler represented the superintendent in Montgomery County in a case involving the unilateral dismissal of a system employee. Bresler also represented the Howard system in 2005, when Dyer represented Bruce Venter, the system's chief business officer who was terminated by former superintendent John O'Rourke.

"She was representing a superintendent in an issue having to do with a system employee …when a similar issue came up here, Ms. Bresler was on the other side," Dyer said. "That's where an existing or potential conflict of interest is."

Other board members disagreed. Vice-chairwoman Sandra French said the board knew of Bresler's work in Montgomery County, and that is why the board wanted her on the case.

"If Mr. Dyer has a conflict of interest here, it's because he defended Mr. Venter in that lawsuit," French said.

Venter's case was ultimately dismissed.

Board members Brian Meshkin and Aquino pointed out a conflict of interest on the part of Dyer.

"There's a conflict in discussing legal counsel and the role of legal counsel if you are actively engaged in litigation with us," Meshkin said. "There's a conflict in having a sitting board member suing the board that he sits on."

After all the discussion, the board approved the three contracts by a 6-1 vote.

Hearing set for Sept. 27

Meanwhile, the board's request to have Dyer removed from its ranks is proceeding at the state level. A pre-hearing conference was held the same day as the board meeting. At that conference, an administrative law judge in Hunt Valley agreed to hear Dyer's request — filed July 13 — to have the complaint against him dismissed.

The hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 27, Dyer said, and a ruling must be made within 30 days. If the administrative law judge agrees to dismiss the board's request, the case then will go before the state school board. If either the board or Dyer contests the state board's decision, the case will then go to Circuit Court.

In the meantime, the Howard board must continue to meet. There is little that can be done to intervene if another situation arises in which Siddiqui is forced to call a recess, said local and state officials.

Despite the latest episode between Dyer and the board, Siddiqui and Aquino said the seven-member elected panel is still functioning.

"There's always the possibility of something coming up," Siddiqui said. "But now we can start the meetings not even knowing how long it will take to approve (something as routine as) the agenda."

"We're still getting the job done," Aquino added. "It just proceeds more slowly. Nothing in the schools is being delayed."

Siddiqui, who has attended several leadership conferences as board chairwoman, said calling the recess was the proper move at the Sept. 8 meeting.

"There's a need to maintain order, and I had called him out of order and he wasn't responding to that," she said. "One issue discussed (at leadership conferences) is when you have a board member being abusive to staff, or to other board members, and not following the rules, it's the order of the chair to call a recess."