RICHMOND — An attorney chosen to help guide the West Contra Costa school board as it pursues a forensic audit of the district”s $1.6 billion bond program has withdrawn from the contract.
Board President Todd Groves said Monday that attorney Scott Emblidge, of San Francisco-based Moscone Emblidge and Otis, stepped down based on the appearance of a potential conflict, after this newspaper found in an online search that Emblidge had worked with family members of former Trustee Charles Ramsey.
Groves said after the special Monday meeting that Emblidge did not realize that Eleanor Ramsey, of the Mason Tillman law firm with whom he had previously worked as a consultant, was related to Charles Ramsey.
Due to Emblidge”s withdrawal, the board tabled its plans to establish a process for the selection of a firm to complete a forensic audit of the district”s $1.6 billion construction bond program and to define its scope. The board agreed in April to pursue an audit, based on allegations of mismanagement raised by whistle-blower Dennis Clay.
Several members of the public, as well as Trustees Liz Block and Val Cuevas, asked Trustee Madeline Kronenberg to recuse herself from the audit process, based on $42,000 in campaign contributions she has received from the SGI construction management firm that oversees the bond program. They also expressed concerns about Kronenberg”s participation on the board”s Facilities Subcommittee, which Clay alleged made decisions that were not approved by the entire board.
Block and Cuevas said Kronenberg”s recusal would help to avoid the appearance of a conflict and preserve the audit”s integrity in the eyes of the public. Former Trustee Antonio Medrano said Kronenberg should recuse herself so no one can say she is selecting “buddies or friends.”
But Kronenberg said she believed she could act impartially and did not plan to abstain from votes or discussions related to the audit. However, she would agree not to sit on a subcommittee that the board may establish to help choose a new attorney or to participate in any other nonpublic audit discussions.
Groves and Trustee Randy Enos said they did not see any legal reason for Kronenberg to recuse herself.
At its meeting Wednesday, the board expects to establish a timeline for the audit and to discuss the creation of a subcommittee to help select a new independent attorney.
Block said the board should create a narrow scope of work for the attorney and solicit applications from law firms that have no relation to the district. The top three to five firms, she said, should publicly present their qualifications to the board.
“We want to be as transparent as possible,” Block said.
The district”s independent Citizens Bond Oversight Committee has also said it wants to be part of the audit process. Kronenberg said the board should consider including other district residents on the subcommittee, as well.
Hercules Vice Mayor Dan Romero said the independent attorney should help to determine whether any laws have been broken. Clay alleged that Ramsey may have been guilty of criminal wrongdoing, Superintendent Bruce Harter “facilitated” mismanagement and Assistant Superintendent Sheri Gamba was “negligent” in her oversight of financial transactions and reports.
After the meeting, district resident Ben Steinberg said he would not accept audit findings if Kronenberg does not recuse herself.
“And I believe many other people will be suspicious,” he said.
To see video clips from the meeting, as well as the West Contra Costa school district”s initial contract with attorney Scott Emblidge, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.