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Collier school board votes to hire James Molenaar as board attorney; concerns discounted

The Collier County School Board voted Monday to hire James Molenaar to the newly created position of school board attorney.
The Collier County School Board voted Monday to hire James Molenaar to the newly created position of school board attorney.

The Collier County School Board voted Monday to hire James Molenaar to the newly created position of school board attorney.

There were four candidates: James Molenaar, Kevin Pendley, Cassius Borel, and Michael Fasano, who withdrew his name earlier. The remaining three candidates appeared before the school board at the special meeting at 9 a.m. Monday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center.

A vote that came after the meeting to interview potential candidates for the $180,000 position also came with some sharp words from a board member over comments made about the hiring process for the position.

After the candidate interviews, the board selected Molenaar by a 3-to-2 vote. Casting votes for Molenaar were board chair Kelly Lichter, Jerry Rutherford, and Tom Moshier. Members Stephanie Lucarelli and Erick Carter cast "no" votes.

A motion to hire Pendley, made before the vote on Molenaar, was rejected, with Lucarelli and Carter casting "yes" votes and Lichter, Rutherford, and Moshier voting "no".

Molenaar was a former senior legal counsel for the Collier County Clerk of Courts. He was fired from that post in May 2020, days after he filed to run for Collier County Clerk against Crystal Kinzel. She won re-election.

During discussion of the candidates Monday, Rutherford said he had heard of a potential conflict of interest with Pendley but declined to elaborate. The conflict information was no clearer after a brief recess to allow Rutherford to speak with school board attorney Jon Fishbane. The board then opted to take a 90-minute break to allow Rutherford to confirm his assertion.

After the break, Rutherford told the board he could not reach his source and he would not reveal his source or the extent of the conflict.

"I cannot reveal that," Rutherford said. 'I'm not going to reveal because that would reveal the source..." Rutherford, however, indicated he was willing to proceed with the vote.

Prior to the vote, a suggestion to extend the process and seek more candidates, suggested by Carter, was discussed but not voted on.

The board meeting started with Lichter commenting on a report made by what she termed as a "leftist" blog over the weekend about the position and Molenaar.

The information Lichter referred to at the start of the meeting was in a Jan. 21 report by Southwest Florida blogger Sandy Parker in herSparkers Soapbox blog and involved prior email contact between Molenaar and Lichter about the attorney position. Parker filed a public records request for the information with the Collier County Public Schools.

"I am pretty shocked, actually. I shouldn't even be shocked that a local leftist blogger would twist a narrative that individual board members are unable to meet with constituents since the election," Lichter said. "I've met with dozens of people that are interested in learning about the mission and vision that we have for this district and to falsely twist and accuse me of wrongdoing is not anything different than I've seen over nearly a decade. It's appalling. So I'm not going to be intimidated by saying 'oh, we're going to accuse you of more violations and crimes' or whatever you come up with by some leftist blogger that incites the community. It's just it's, it's it's blatantly wrong. And I'm not going to stand for it."

Parker reported in the blog that Molenaar had prior email contact with Lichter in November, including sending her a draft employment agreement.

Molenaar's emails with Lichter included a nine-page proposed employment agreement and indicated that Molenaar would be selected for the position at the Dec. 7 board meeting: "WHEREAS, on Dec. 7, 2022, at a Special Board Meeting, the Board chose James D. Molenaar to become the Board's Attorney also known as chief Legal Counsel of said Collier County Public Schools governing Board."

In the email to Lichter, Molenaar wrote: I believe this is everything you need to get this item placed on the Dec. 7, 2022, Special Board Meeting. Please let me know if you need anything else, or if you foresee a problem."

That item did not appear on the board's Dec. 7 special meeting agenda and Molenaar's hiring did not occur at that time.

Additionally, WGCU obtained a copy of a Dec. 29 email from Molenaar to board members Erick Carter, Stephanie Lucarelli, and Jerry Rutherford:

“As you may know, several weeks ago I applied to be your School Board Attorney. If you would like to discuss my background, training and experience in greater detail, I am happy to make myself available at your convenience. If you are amenable to such a meeting, please let me know, I would be more than happy to meet with you perhaps over a cup of coffee. In the meantime, should you wish to discuss this matter further, please feel free to call me at [redacted]. Very truly yours, Jim Molenaar.”

According to Sparker's Soapbox on Jan. 21, during the board member comments portion of the Jan. 10 special board meeting, Lucarelli said that she had received an email from one of the applicants and asked if any other board members had received it as well. (Meeting video recording at 4:07)

Parker's blog reported that Lucarelli said that a candidate reaching out to one or more board members might raise an ethics concern and suggested an analogy with a hypothetical applicant who responded to a CCPS RFP (Request for Proposal) subsequently reaching out to a school board member, which she said would not be ethical.

Lichter said she did not necessarily agree with Lucarelli’s analogy. She said that for two of the candidates, she knew “who they are” but that she doesn’t have a personal relationship with them. “I have not talked to any candidate since the job posting went out,” she said.

Additionally, Lichter said she had forwarded the emails to the district e-mail. "So, if I had something to hide, why would I have done that," she asked.

A WGCU request for comment from Molenaar, Fishbane, and members of the Collier school board was not answered.

During the board meeting Fishbane said he had checked into the issue of Molenaar's emails to Lichter and concluded there was no evidence of any Sunshine violation nor any manipulation of the process to favor a candidate, no backdoor deal or anything related. Fishbane said Molenaar's name for the position was not put on the Dec. 7 agenda because "Lichter never sent (Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources Valerie) Wenrich such documents as she prepared for the December 7th meeting."

Additionally, Fishbane said Lichter sent all three communications to her district e-mail where they immediately became public record. "Nothing was withheld or hidden from public review," he said. "Therefore, I believe it is appropriate, Madam Chair, that we proceed with these interviews," Fishbane said.

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