Decision on back-taxes pact divides Fort Worth trustees

FORT WORTH -- After heated exchanges Tuesday night, Fort Worth school trustees could not agree on how to select a law firm to collect delinquent property taxes.

The board split 4-4 on a motion to hire a third-party law firm to advise the board on the contract. Some trustees proposed the alternative of creating a committee of board members and administrators to review the contracts. That, too, was defeated.

The contract for delinquent tax collections is often the most politically charged decision trustees make. It is lucrative for the winning law firm -- typically, it keeps 15 to 20 percent of the money collected -- and two firms compete aggressively for contracts from area governments.

Last month, in hope of finding a better deal, trustees revoked the contract with Fort Worth-based Perdue, Brackett, Flores, Utt & Burns, which was set to expire in 2011.

They had given the firm a two-year extension in December.

Trustees Carlos Vasquez, T.A. Sims and Juan Rangel wanted to give the other major firm -- Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson -- a chance to bid for the district's contract.

Superintendent Melody Johnson had recommended continuing to use an outside law firm to help advise the district, a practice that began in 2007.

In the past, she said, the competing firms gave trustees conflicting information and made accusations about each other, which was hard for trustees to sort through.

"We want to everyone to feel good about" the selection process, Johnson said.

Trustee Christene Moss supported hiring a third-party law firm, saying she was concerned about things happening "under the table" in relation to this contract.

"You can talk about transparency all you want, but it's not happening," said Moss, who did not give specifics.

Others supporting outside legal advice included board President Ray Dickerson and Trustees Norm Robbins and Sims.

Trustee Judy Needham was absent from the meeting.

Voting no were Trustees Tobi Jackson, Ann Sutherland, Rangel and Vasquez.

"We're putting money into a process that we should be taking care of ourselves," Rangel said.

In July, Vasquez tried to get the board to create a review committee that would include trustees and staffers. He tried again Tuesday night.

"In my mind, it's not about politics but about doing what is right," he said.

But he was defeated. Other trustees said such a committee was outside trustees' policymaking role and too far into an administrative role. Usually administrators bring recommendations to the board about contracts with vendors.

Also, Dickerson said, "I'm very concerned because of the political aspects of this decision that this would create some perceived or very real conflicts of interests."

Before the initial vote, a frustrated Sims said the whole review process was unnecessary. Information about the tax-collection contracts will be similar to past years, and board members will likely vote for a favored firm regardless of what a third party finds.

"It's going to be the same two firms we've been looking at for the last 15 years," he said. "Why are we wasting people's time and money?"

Eva-Marie Ayala,