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Wagner asks BOE to pay for attorney

Lawyer: Comments 'may be slanderous in nature'

Lawyer: Comments 'may be slanderous in nature'

January 04, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY ? A Washington County Board of Education member accused of making statements about a school board candidate that the candidate's attorney said "may be slanderous in nature" has asked the board to pay for her private attorney.

Board Member Bernadette M. Wagner received a letter Dec. 14 from an attorney representing Jacqueline B. Fischer, a candidate for the school board.

The attorney, Mark Mixter, wrote in a second letter to Wagner that she could be legally responsible for both compensatory and punitive damages related to public comments she made during a school board business meeting a week earlier. He also wrote that "anticipated litigation ... will ensue shortly."

Wagner wrote in a letter to Board President Roxanne R. Ober that she intended to hire private counsel at "the board's expense" in response to what she called the "threatening tone" of the first letter from Mixter.

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Ober would not say whether the board has met to discuss the possibility of hiring an attorney for Wagner. Ober asked that questions be directed to Will Kauffman in the school system's public information office. She said that the school system's chief legal counsel, Anthony Trotta, advised her not to talk about the issue.

Fischer is one of nine people who have filed to fill four open seats on the school board. The primary election is Feb. 12.

Wagner questions board policy on candidates

Wagner, who did not file to run for re-election, said during the Dec. 11 public meeting that a candidate who has a contract with the school board is subject to the board's authority, and she questioned whether that was a violation of board policy. At the meeting, Wagner sought a "legal opinion" on whether that candidate should step down from the race or leave the position.

Wagner did not name Fischer, who was hired by Washington County Public Schools as a proofreader, in her original remarks. Fischer has resigned from her contractual position as a proofreader with Washington County Public Schools, and also from her role on the facilities and enrollment advisory committee.

In December, Kauffman said that Fischer's contractual association with the school system would not prevent her from running for office, as long as she disclosed her association with the school system. Fischer said she did so.

Fischer said Thursday that no legal action has been taken against Wagner.

Mixter, who said Wagner's statements "may be slanderous in nature," did not rule out the possibility of a lawsuit. He also asked that Wagner apologize during Tuesday's board meeting and in the newspaper.

Ridenour against BOE paying for attorney's fees

Wagner declined to comment.

In a Dec. 17 letter to Ober, Board Vice President Wayne D. Ridenour wrote that he was against any decision for the board to pay for Wagner's attorney's fees.

"The purpose of this letter is to place on record my disapproval of any financial support, through the attorney fees, for an action that was not authorized by consensus of the board," Ridenour wrote. "If this were to become a protracted action, it could cost the taxpayers of Washington County thousands of dollars."

Ridenour also wrote in the letter that the board's financing of Wagner's attorney could appear to be approval of Wagner's comments and actions.

"The actions and opinions were those of an individual board member," Ridenour wrote. "They certainly had no prior support from me nor were they discussed at anytime by the full board."

Ridenour would not comment on his letter or the issue.

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