By Ron Leir
The N.J. State League of Municipalities says it hasn’t heard of the idea being applied anywhere in the state.
Neither has the N.J. School Boards Association.
Nevertheless, the Township of Lyndhurst and Lyndhurst Board of Education are setting out on a possible precedent-setting path to share legal services – a strategy that the township claims, will yield an annual savings of at least $50,000.
Leading the way in this experiment is former Lyndhurst Mayor Richard DiLascio, who has operated a private law practice since 1984 and who, under a municipal reorganization plan approved May 21, will head up the Township Law Division reporting to Chief Financial Officer Robert Benecke.
And, in that post, DiLascio will also have responsibility for legal issues touching on the township’s public school district, as ratified by the Lyndhurst Board of Education on June 27.
“Pure economics” was how David DiPisa, the school board’s business administrator, explained the move. “The philosophy here has always been to redirect money, wherever we can, to the classroom.”
One way to accomplish that goal, DiPisa said, is by reducing the district’s legal expenses.
So, in May, the district sought Requests for Proposal for a shared legal services agreement geared to serving both the township and the school system.
DiPisa said that Wells Jaworski Liebman, a Paramus law firm, offered to do the job at an hourly rate of $125; Eric Bernstein, a Warren attorney, submitted the same offer; Dacotis Fitzpatrick & Cole, of Hackensack, came in at $175 an hour.
In the end, DiPisa said, the school board opted to go with a proposal filed by Benecke, on behalf of the Township of Lyndhurst, pitching an hourly rate of $125 (except for federal litigation which would be billed at $138 an hour), with all legal work to be performed by DiLascio and “special matters counsel” (and former Township Attorney) Gary Cucchiara.
But the kicker, DiPisa said, was a “guarantee that the Township will cap the amount of legal services provided to the Lyndhurst BOE at $81,250. … Any excess hours will be absorbed by the Township in an effort to save even greater Lyndhurst taxpayer dollars.”
The only exception to the cap would be pre-existing outstanding litigation and federal claims and/or cases.
None of the law firms that submitted RFPs offered a comparable “not to exceed” payment offer, DiPisa said.
Before the BOE acted, DiPisa said he submitted the shared service proposal to the Bergen County Superintendent of Schools’ office for review and no objection was raised “as long as you have a ‘conflicts counsel’ which the board has designated as [current general counsel] Ken Porro.”
N.J. School Boards Association Frank Belluscio said there appeared to be legal precedent for instances “in which the same counsel served a municipality/county and the corresponding school district,” as cited in Opinion 653, 132 N.J. (1993) where the N.J. Supreme Court “found no per se ban prohibiting an attorney from serving simultaneously as county counsel and counsel to the county vocational school board” and Opinion 707 (no date provided) in which the N.J. Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics “found that, in an instance in which the same counsel represented the municipality and corresponding school district, the facts as presented posed no ‘significant’ or ‘substantial’ risk to the rules of professional conduct ‘so as to bar the holding of both positions by the inquiring attorney.’ ’’
But Belluscio said he couldn’t come up with any examples of a municipality and school district sharing legal services.
During the past three years, DiPisa said, legal fees incurred by the district have declined, from $183,000 for the 2010-11 school year to $127,000 for the 2012-13 school year, and the BOE welcomes a further reduction for the upcoming year, based on the Benecke proposal it has accepted.
DiLascio is no stranger to local school matters. He served as a member of the BOE from 1982 to 1988 and as general counsel to the BOE from 1995 to 2005. He also endorsed a public referendum to spend nearly $30 million on a new middle school and other improvements but voters rejected it.
DiLascio, who stepped down as mayor – but continued as a $5,200-a-year Township Commissioner – with a year to go in his term to make way for fellow Commissioner Robert Giangeruso, opted not to seek re-election to the Township Commission when his term ran out in May.
Now, as the Township of Lyndhurst/Lyndhurst BOE shared services chief lawyer, DiLascio will be pocketing a salary of up to $100,000 a year for performing at least 32.5 hours per week to attend commission meetings, prepare meeting agenda documents and meet with commissioners on agenda items under a professional services contract approved by the Township Commission on May 21. The contract is for one year but may be “renewed or extended at any time.”
DiLascio will be compensated at the rate of $125 an hour “for all litigation, troubleshooting, specialized legal research, and [certain] labor/ personnel matters.”
As special matters attorney, Cucchiara will earn no more than $17,500 a year handling litigation and tax appeals for the township.
Lyndhurst Superintendent of Schools Tracey Marinelli called the shared service arrangement “a fantastic idea. Lyndhurst has always paved the way to show districts how to foster a positive relationship between two governing bodies.”
How the two parties will achieve the promised savings remains to be seen but Marinelli said that by working together on many levels, the district can only look to benefit. As an example, she said that when the Township Recreation Department opened the Community Pool at the high school to surrounding communities, “it led to 35 kids from North Arlington joining our cooperative high school swim team.”
Marinelli said the high school hosts the townshiprun summer day camp which offers cooking and crafts programs, swimming and gym for kids ages 5 to 13. “And we provide two buses for part of the kids’ transportation,” she added.
Marinelli said that district and township representatives meet “four to six times” during the year to review procedures and plans related to “safety and security” issues.
And, DiPisa said, the Township has pledged to renew its commitment to provide snow removal and tree trimming at school sites, to do camera checks of any blocked water and/or sewer lines that service schools, to cut grass at the high school and part of Roosevelt and Washington Schools and to provide one-way bus transportation for student athletes to practice fields on a daily basis.