Champaign school lawyer not registered with state; he left board to seek job
CHAMPAIGN — The former school board member the Champaign schools recently hired as its new school attorney is not currently registered to practice law in Illinois.
The Champaign school board voted 4-1 at its Monday meeting to hire Tommy Lockman as school attorney, a new position.
The News-Gazette has also learned that:
— Lockman resigned from the board because he was considering applying for the job.
— Both the superintendent and the school board president say there is no conflict of interest.
— And the new position is not expected to add to the school district's payroll, as Lockman's $100,000 salary will be the same as the former finance director's.
Jim Grogan, spokesman for the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, said Lockman last year registered as an inactive lawyer but hadn't registered at all in Illinois, active or inactive, as of Tuesday morning.
"Pursuant to the relevant Supreme Court rule, he has to register each and every year, even if he has to register for inactive status," Grogan said.
Lockman said Tuesday afternoon that he was waiting to see what would happen with the hire before registering.
"I actually called (the commission) this morning, as well, to get that clarified," Lockman said.
The deadline to register with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, or as a retired lawyer, was Jan. 1, Grogan said.
"To be fair, there's a grace period," Grogan said. "What happens is, all lawyers really should register by Jan. 1, but we give them until February to comply with what they need to comply with."
If they don't register by February, Grogan said, attorneys are stricken from what he called the "master roll" and must pay a penalty, plus the fees that are due, to be restored.
Lockman said he was previously inactive because he currently works in a position at the University of Illinois that doesn't require an active law license. There's a higher fee associated with having an active license, Lockman said, as well as a need to carry malpractice insurance.
The fee to be an active, registered lawyer in Illinois is $342 this year, Grogan said. Last year, the fee to be an inactive, registered lawyer was $105. The fee to be an active lawyer last year was $289, he said.
Grogan said anyone who plans not to practice law during a given year can register as inactive and can easily change his or her status to active by paying the fee to be active for that year.
"It's important that they register very quickly and pay their active registration fee and change their status," he said.
An inactive lawyer cannot represent clients or work as a lawyer in Illinois, he said.
"You can only practice law if you're active," Grogan said.
Grogan said no disciplinary action has ever been filed or is pending against Lockman.
Lockman's annual salary as school attorney will be $100,000, said school spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart, and the school district is still working out when he will start the job, said Superindent Judy Wiegand. Wiegand said she couldn't comment on the status of Lockman's license.
Lockman currently works as an award coordinator for the UI Office of Sponsored Programs and Research Administration and made $51,250 annually in that position as of last September, according to the UI.
He served on the school board from April 2009 until December, which was before he applied for the school attorney position, he said.
"I resigned because I was considering applying," Lockman said. "I didn't want there to be any concern that I was in any way involved in creating the position."
Lockman said he was not a part of the discussion, as a board member, about the position's job description or what it would be.
"Those are all done at the administrative level," he said.
Before working at the university, Lockman was an associate attorney at Meyer Capel in Champaign, where he specialized in real estate acquisitions and development, corporate law, and business and estate planning, according to a news release from the school district.
Lockman said at Meyer Capel, he garnered "a range of experience in different areas of the law."
"There are a whole lot of different things that you ultimately encounter when you're working for a school district," Lockman said. "I have experience in a number of different areas I certainly believe will be relevant to my practice with the school district."
Wiegand said Lockman, as school attorney, will work on property acquisitions, insurance, workers compensation and creating a policy for how injured workers come back to work.
The school district currently lacks a return-to-work policy, Wiegand said, and the school board has asked for one in the last couple of years.
Lockman will also do work related to bids and will serve as lead negotiator in upcoming contract negotiations with the unions that represent teachers and support personnel, Wiegand said.
Some of Lockman's responsibilities will be those previously taken care of by Barbara Ramsay, the former finance director, Wiegand said. Ramsay resigned, effective Jan. 11, to become chief deputy auditor for Champaign County.
Wiegand said she decided not to fill that position, and she called Lockman's salary "an even swap" in comparison to Ramsay's.
The school district is hoping to save $50,000 to $100,000 by having a lawyer as an employee, rather than paying legal fees to outside firms.
Wiegand said the school district was looking for an attorney "who could also work in the business realm, as well," and said Normal's school district has done something similar.
"That's really what he brought to the table," Wiegand said.
Wiegand said the school board had hoped last year, when the school district was looking for someone to lead its human resources department, to hire someone with a legal background. The board was concerned about legal fees, Wiegand said, but the district was not able to hire someone with legal expertise at that time.
"(The board) brought it up again a couple of months ago," Wiegand said. She said she knew Ramsay was looking at "other opportunities," and so she started looking at how other school districts, especially those in the Large Unit District Association, organized their central offices.
Diane Rutledge, the Large Unit District Association's executive director, said some member districts have attorneys on staff, including the Chicago Public Schools, Elgin, Joliet, Carpentersville and Normal, which has a combined attorney and chief financial officer position.
"Some larger districts find it more economical to add an attorney to staff versus paying contract fees," Rutledge said.
Wiegand said she's concerned that there may be a perception that Lockman's hire is a conflict of interest.
She said Lockman was not involved in creating the position and happened to be out of town when Wiegand spoke about the position to the school board. She said Lockman resigned before submitting his application for the position.
Wiegand said the school district is still working out when Lockman will start his new position.
Board President Stig Lanesskog on Monday said he didn't believe the board had a conflict of interest in approving Lockman's hire.
Lanesskog said Lockman will not report directly to the board, but to Wiegand.
"I think the board feels strongly that she should be able to select her team," Lanesskog said.
Lockman will not represent the board's interests, because it has its own legal counsel, Lanesskog said.
He said he also believes Lockman's board experience will be helpful.
"He can put the law into Champaign's context," Lanesskog said.
Board member Jamar Brown voted against Lockman's hire.
"I don't believe Tommy's the candidate that is in alignment with the direction that the district is going," Brown said.
Lockman said he's looking forward to his new job.
"I'm very excited to have a position that blends my real passion with my professional skills," he said.