Friday, July 14, 2017
Meyer Pledges End to Secrecy in LACBA
New President Says Power Will Shift From Executive Committee to Board of Trustees,
Individual Donations to Be Sought to Fund Charitable Projects
By a MetNews Staff Writer
MICHAEL E. MEYER
Los Angeles County Bar Association President Michael E. Meyer told members of the Board of Trustees Wednesday night that he wants to end secrecy within the organization, place the full board and not the officers in the role of the real decisionmakers, and stop the siphoning of funds to the group’s charitable arm, the Counsel for Justice.
High spirits marked the meeting, the first since Meyer and the other officers and trustees took office on July 1.
As Meyer and others discussed how policies and practices need to diverge from those of the past, Immediate Past President Margaret Stevens sat silent and expressionless, leaving the meeting early.
The 2015-16 president, Paul Kiesel, and then-Chief Executive Officer Sally Sushil drew wide criticisms for the secrecy that existed within LACBA—to the extent that members could not obtain copies of the bylaws, and sections were denied access to detailed financial reports. That sparked the formation of the Council of Sections in late 2015, and a contested election last year in which reform-slate candidates won all elective officer positions and all trustee seats they sought.
However, Stevens, then the president-elect, automatically succeeded to the presidency on July 1, 2016. With half the trustees (who are elected to two-year terms) being hold-overs in 2016-17, two trustee candidates she favored drawing no validated election opposition in 2016, one reform-slate trustee resigning last October for health reasons, and Stevens’ appointment of three assistant vice presidents and a treasurer, the reform segment remained in the minority that year.
Now, all officers except Stevens—the “immediate past president” automatically being an officer and trustee—are part of the reform movement, as are most of the trustees.
Meyer called for an end to factionalism, and a commitment “to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Calls for Openness
The new bar chief—who is chair of the Los Angeles office of DLA Piper—told trustees:
“I want to eliminate secrecy, ”adding:
“We are going to try to eliminate secret executive sessions.”
It was in an executive session last April 26 that an effort was made on a 7-6 vote (with most members of the 28-member board voluntarily or forcibly recused) to amend the bylaws, without previous notice, to permit what was termed a “redo” of the 2017 uncontested election, creating the prospect of contested races. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on June 13 found that action was invalid, ruling in a dispute over Steven’s refusal on March 22 to cause certification of the election results.
(Certification came on June 15.)
In the recent past, LACBA has sought announcements in advance of the board meetings by non-trustees who planned to attend and a statement of the capacity in which they would appear. Late in Wednesday night’s meeting, trustee Sheri Bluebond, chief bankruptcy judge for the Central District of California, cautioned board members that a member of the press was present, indicating they might wish to take that into account in fashioning their comments.
Meyer responded: “I don’t think we have anything to hide.”
He declared that reporters for other newspapers will be encouraged to attend board meetings, and noted that any LACBA member is always welcome to come.
In recent years, major decisions were made for LACBA by the Executive Committee, comprised of the officers, and brought to the Board of Trustees for rubber-stamping. Meyer pledged:
“I’m going to place much less reliance on the Executive Committee.”
A point of contention within the organization has been the subsidizing of projects of the Counsel for Justice, LACBA’s charitable arm, at a time when the association has been losing about $1 million a year. In 2014, LACBA forgave a debt of $546,375 for administrative expenses, with a $2.3 million debt remaining; at the end of 2015, CFJ owed LACBA $3.3 million.
Meyer lauded the pro bono effort, but said that “we can’t let the bar association suffer as a result” of it.
“The key is to make sure that we keep it viable and raise money,” he remarked.
Meyer counseled members of the board:
“Think of ways to raise money and effective ways to get grants….It’s doable.”
LACBA’s interim CEO, Rick Cohen, delivered a report in which he echoed Meyer’s comments as to ending subsidies to CFJ, saying:
“Putting CFJ on a self-supporting and sustainable basis is very, very important to this organization.”
He expressed that sentiment on Wednesday in meeting with leaders of the Council of Sections.
Cohen urged that trustees trade in favors that are owed them by seeking monetary contributions for use in maintaining CFJ projects.
He related that through his activities over the years, many favors are owed him. Cohen, who came out of a brief retirement to take on the interim post, said:
“This is my last job. I’m willing to spend my last capital [favors owed him] on LACBA.”
Cohen not only repeated a call Meyer made for mentoring of newer lawyers, but proposed “a mentoring program in each section.”
He announced that by August or September, LACBA will have equipment in place enabling each section to conduct webcasts from the association’s headquarters at Seventh and Bixel streets.
Cohen and LACBA Chief Financial & Administrative Officer Bruce Berra sought board authorization for them to file a response to the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs’ request for proposals in connection with a “Self Help Legal Access Program.” The program, which would net LACBA about $200,000 a year if it were chosen as the contractor, would entail assisting pro pers in filling out legal forms, and would require hiring 11 lawyers and eight paralegals.
“It’s a big project….This is a big to-do.”
“We don’t want to enter into a program that will strain your resources to the breaking point.”
Meyer expressed concern over liability inherent in advising pro pers, and Cohen responded that “utterly and absolutely…we have to address that issue.”
President-Elect Brian Kabateck commented that LACBA is “going through a transitory period” and questioned whether this would be “the right time” for such an undertaking.
At Cohen’s suggestion, it was agreed that after staff looks into the various concerns, a decision be made later in the month in a telephonic meeting of the board whether to file a proposal with the county.
Upon completing a lengthy report, Cohen said: “I’m done.” The soft-spoken Meyer—who in introducing Cohen commended him for his energy and commitment—commented, with a smile: “Thank God.”
Later in the meeting, in praising trustee Tanya Forsheit for a written report that was “right to the point,” he looked directly at Cohen, who acknowledged receipt of the message.
Berra acknowledged that LACBA, in the present calendar year, had a deficit, as of the end of May, of about $375,000. In reaching that figure, he discounted the association’s holding of a $654,000 cy press award in a restricted account to be used over a period of years for its veterans’ project.
He noted that there are traditionally low revenues in this part of the year, and predicted that by the end of the calendar year, the association will be slightly in the black.
The CFO said LACBA this year suffered a 5 percent drop in membership, and that last year, it was 3 percent.
Meyer announced his nominations of trustee John Hartigan as treasurer and MetNews Co-Publisher/ General Counsel Jo-Ann W. Grace, a 2015-17 trustee, as an assistant vice president. They were approved by the board unanimously.
The new president said he has not yet decided upon his nominees to the two other assistant vice president positions.
Hartigan now holds a seat on the Board of Trustees based on his election last year to a two-year term, as well as by virtue of being appointed and confirmed as this year’s treasurer. Should he resign as an elected trustee, Meyer could appoint a replacement, subject to board approval.
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