You won’t see Dennis O’Hara at Liverpool school board meetings anymore.
The board voted 6-2 at their meeting Monday night to terminate a retainer agreement with O’Hara’s firm, O’Hara, O’Connell and Ciotoli, and transfer all active files to the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck and King, with whom the district entered into a retainer agreement in September.
“From my personal perspective, I think this is the right move,” said Acting Board President David Savlov, who first introduced the resolution at the board’s Sept. 30 meeting. “I feel very confident that Bond, Schoeneck and King can take care of our files and act in the district’s best interest.”
Board member Pat Mouton, a former teacher at the high school, agreed.
“As a person who’s been in this district for 30 years, I think we need a lawyer who is not part of the story,” Mouton said. “I’m especially concerned about the 3020a hearings [hearings to terminate suspended administrators George Mangicaro and Bonnie Ladd based on disciplinary charges]. We’ve had no updates, and we don’t know where we stand or what the timeline is.”
Donna Marsh O’Connor said she wasn’t sure the move went far enough.
“For 37 years, we worked with this firm without a retainer agreement,” O’Connor said. “I want to make sure that, when we say we’re terminating the retainer agreement, we’re terminating the relationship entirely.”
The most vocal proponent of the resolution was Joe Unangst, who had himself been targeted by O’Hara’s firm.
“After sending out an e-mail to friends, family, supporters and other board members expressing my opinion, I received a letter from Mr. O’Hara threatening litigation against me if I again expressed my opinion,” Unangst said. “I had to retain my own legal counsel.”
Unangst also noted that O’Hara’s firm had sent similar letters to community members, had continued to work on new cases without authorization and had sent letters to certain board members criticizing other board members, among other infractions.
“Most importantly, I have not heard a single community member request that we retain this counsel,” Unangst said.
The only board member who didn’t speak was Colleen Pallotta, who also voted for the resolution. She had been one of four board members to vote against it when Savlov first presented it to the board.
Rick Pento also changed his vote from “nay” to “yay” at Monday’s meeting.
But not everyone felt that ousting the firm was the best idea. Mike Murphy and Dee Perkins voted against the resolution for the second time.
Perkins said she feared existing cases, particularly the cases involving Mangicaro and Ladd, would suffer under the change.
“We’ll lose the time and money we put into it,” she said. “I will not support this effort.”
Murphy said he thought it would be better to wait until the board received all Requests for Professional Service Proposals (RFPs) back and had selected an attorney to represent the district based on those. That will take place at the Dec. 8 meeting, with the firm to take over Jan. 1.
“I think we’re doing this out of sequence,” Murphy said. “We’re transitioning our files from one law firm to another, and we may end up with another transition in January. It seems nonsensical to me.”
But O’Connor said waiting was out of the question.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting until Jan. 1 to effect this,” she said. “Our community has come to us and asked us to be reasonable, and we just cannot go forward with that firm.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.