Osceola Co. school board chair says taxpayers should pay legal fees

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OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. —

The Osceola County School Board chair wants taxpayers to foot the bill for any member's legal fees.

Jay Wheeler came up with the idea after facing lawsuits and complaints by fellow board members.

The district refused to pay for some of his legal fees in the past.

Another board member filed a complaint against Wheeler, but it was dismissed.

Wheeler tried to get the district to pay for some of his legal fees, but it said no.

In the future, Wheeler thinks tax money should be used to fight these kinds of battles.

As an 11-year member of the Osceola County School Board, Wheeler has seen ups and downs.

"If you serve long enough and you take strong opinions, you're going to make strong enemies too. Your enemies are who goes after you. Your friends don't go after you," Wheeler said.

Wheeler was the target of an ethics complaint in 2011 that was dropped.

Former board member Cindy Hartig also filed a defamation lawsuit against him.

So far, it will cost him more than $15,000 in legal fees.

"I think there's an expectation you're not going to go broke as an elected official," Wheeler said.

Tuesday, Wheeler will urge board members to approve the use of taxpayer money to pay for a member's legal fees.

School board members have to use their own money to defend themselves.

If taxpayers had to foot the bill, Wheeler thinks the number of lawsuits and complaints would go down.

In Orange County, if a suit or complaint is filed against a board member in their official position, there's the potential for the case to be defended using district dollars.

The board must approve it first.

Some Osceola County locals told WFTV they do not agree with the idea.

"I think that's crazy. First of all, why are they worried about getting in trouble?" said one Osceola County resident, who did not want to be identified.

"Run for office and get sued, or have somebody file a complaint against you and hire legal counsel, and then let's hear what you got to say," Wheeler said.

In 2011, Wheeler had to pay $17,000 fines by the state elections commission.

He said he was a candidate at the time of the wrongdoing so that wouldn't count under his new proposal.