TERRE HAUTE —
With the retirement of Fred Bauer as school board attorney, the Vigo County School Board on Monday hired a new law firm to represent it — Smock and Etling.
The vote was 5 to 2, with board members Tom Thomas and Jackie Lower raising some concerns about the selection and ultimately voting against it.
Lower said that one of her concerns relates to Joe Etling’s role as chairman of the Vigo County Democratic Party. “We are to be a nonpolitical entity as a school board, so I would hope that connection does not reflect back on the School Board,” she said.
Also, 60 percent of the firm’s clients or business relate to criminal matters, she said, “and I don’t think we have a lot of that.”
Also, one of the associates in the firm, Matt Sheehan, is “just two years out of law school,” she said. “I think there is a lot of experience that is needed there, but I think there will be a lot of support and we depend on ISBA and Bose-McKinney a lot, too.”
She was referring to the Indiana School Boards Association and Bose, McKinney and Evans, an Indianapolis law firm.
While raising concerns, Lower said she considers Bill Smock and Etling to be friends.
Thomas said that in upcoming years, the district will potentially be dealing with bonding for a new swimming facility and major renovations of the high schools.
That will require local counsel to provide advice on financial matters, “and during the interview process I didn’t get the sense that the Smock-Etling firm had the breadth and depth of knowledge that we will need in these areas,” he said.
He said for criminal matters, “I’d definitely put them on speed dial.”
Asked for comment after the school board meeting, Etling said, “We’re looking forward to working with the board and corporation.”
Smock has practiced law for more than 40 years, and Etling said he has practiced law for 25 years. “We’ll be involved with the process,” he said, and they would supervise Sheehan’s work.
According to Superintendent Dan Tanoos, Etling would be the lead attorney at first, and later that role would transition to Sheehan.
Etling said Sheehan was an excellent law student and has gained much experience while practicing law. He’s tried jury trials and recently successfully tried a case in front of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of appeals.
Etling’s brother, Jay, is business supervisor for the school district, while Matt Sheehan’s uncle is school board member Pat Sheehan.
Tanoos said ISBA was contacted and found there was no conflict of interest.
Etling said that various legal resources were contacted to confirm there wasn’t any conflict of interest. “I don’t think there are legally,” nor does he believe there are personally any conflicts of interest.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.