WESLACO — The school board here is having a difficult time finding a law firm everybody can agree on.
After a successful push by freshman board trustees to terminate the district’s contract with its previous general counsel last month, the board met Thursday to vote on approving a contract to provide legal services to the district with Walsh Gallegos Trevino Russo & Kyle PPC, which ranked first out of the three firms that applied for the position.
In a move that surprised the representative from Walsh Gallegos and appeared to frustrate other trustees, the same faction of mostly new trustees that ran off the district’s previous legal counsel voted against hiring Walsh Gallegos at Thursday’s meeting.
According to Superintendent Priscilla Canales, the board must now hold another special meeting to consider updates to negotiate a contract with Walsh or terminate those negotiations and authorize administration to initiate negotiations with the second-ranked firm, the Law Offices of Eloy Sepulveda.
Board President Armando Cuellar Jr. appeared thrown off when Trustee Jacklyn Sustaita voted against approving the contract and asked her to repeat her motion.
Trustee Andrew Gonzalez shook his head when she repeated her “no,” and shook it again each time Trustees Jesse Trevino, Marcos De Los Santos and Cuellar voted the same way.
Gonzalez thanked Walsh representative Joe De Los Santos.
“On behalf of the firm, while we’re disappointed, we do appreciate the board’s time and consideration in reviewing our contract and that of the other firms,” the attorney said, apologizing for his surprise and appearing at a loss for words.
Trustee Isidoro Nieto, who voted in favor of the contract, voiced his frustration with the decision, asking why the board had bothered with the ranking process if they weren’t going to choose the top ranked firm.
“You know, we should’ve just waited and done another meeting, instead of spending an hour and a half here the other day listening to the attorneys and them doing a presentation,” he said.
Trustee Marcos De Los Santos said he felt he’d found certain issues after further review of Walsh Gallegos’ proposal.
“I’m gonna speak for myself — there were certain topics, certain specifics, even certain key items that some of the other firms discussed as far as accessibility, location and what not,” he said. “There was multiple things that came into play, as far as for myself and the decision that was made.”
The decision to terminate Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano and find a new firm has been contentious from the start.
In December the same faction of trustees — Sustaita, Trevino, De Los Santos and Cuellar — voted to ax the firm, which served the district for six years.
Three old guard trustees — who all voted in favor of hiring Walsh on Thursday — voiced their support for Jones at that meeting.
“Legal counsel has done an outstanding job these last six years, keeping us out of different situations,” Nieto said in December, suggesting new trustees evaluate the firm further before making the move. “You know, as a professional courtesy, normally you allow yourself to get to know the firm or the attorneys, of what type of job they do…”
Sustaita likened the decision to one that would be made in any other regime change.
“Like Biden, you know, building his new cabinet. … It’s nothing personal for anybody to take, it’s just the building of a new vision,” she said. “That it’s really not to disrespect anybody, just want to add that.”
Calling the decision unorthodox, Gonzalez noted the new trustees hadn’t even had the opportunity to work with the firm.
“This firm employs Weslaco citizens who pay taxes, whose kids go to school there,” he said. “And so when you jump to the ball as far as changes — I get it, changes happen, but not like this and not in this situation. We’re not the presidency, you know.”
Ivan Perez with Jones, Galligan, Key & Lozano said the opportunity to represent the district was an honor at that meeting.
“In that time I think that we’ve represented the district diligently and vigorously in the many legal issues that they’ve faced during that time,” he said. “Our goal has always been to provide sound legal advice and give the district legal options and availability whenever there are any.”
The board heard presentations from Walsh Gallegos and two other firms at a special meeting Tuesday. Sepulveda Law Offices came in second behind Walsh Gallegos, followed by O’Hanlon, Demearth and Castillo.
Walsh Gallegos representative Joe de los Santos touted his group’s large infrastructure at that meeting, saying it employs over 60 attorneys across Texas and New Mexico that represent over 500 school districts. He said the firm currently serves 18 Rio Grande Valley districts as retainer clients and nine as general counsel.
“During periods of uncertainty, during periods of crisis like we’re currently in due to COVID, that deep bench comes in handy,” he said. “We are dealing with COVID issues across the state and sharing information and leveraging that information to the betterment of our clients.”
De Los Santos, a Weslaco native, also stressed the importance of the firm’s Valley ties and noted that it has a history of working with the district since the late 90s.
“We believe that our focus is what sets us apart,” he said.
Asked about his relationship with trustee Marcos De Los Santos, the attorney confirmed they were relatives but said that relationship would have had no legal impact on the agreement.
It’s not in a prohibited degree or within the degree of requiring him to fill out a conflict disclosure, so we’ve already vetted that and there is no conflict,” Joe De Los Santos said.