Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Attorney retiring after 37 years of service to college district


Tim Garfield
Tim Garfield has seen it all in his 37 years as attorney for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. Dealing with issues ranging from student discipline to an endangered species that caused a massive construction delay, Garfield has quietly handled the East County college district’s legal issues based on a deep knowledge of education law and human nature.

“It’s been very gratifying,” Garfield said. “I’ve been able to work with really good people trying to do the right thing and provide the best education possible to the students of the district.”

Garfield attended his last meeting of the East County college district’s board on March 21, where he was honored by Governing Board members and district Chancellor Cindy L. Miles.

“Tim’s legal advice has always been wise, thoughtful and well-researched,” Miles said. “He’s been more than just our attorney. He’s part of the family.”

Garfield’s entire legal career has involved working with the college district, along with other education clients that included the Cajon Valley Union School District and the MiraCosta Community College District. He literally wrote the book on education law: a 2010 guide for lawyers and administrators entitled College and School Law: Analysis, Prevention, and Forms. He was also selected three times by San Diego Magazine as a top lawyer in education law.

Garfield, who grew up in La Mesa, said he always had a fondness for the college district because of his East County roots. The son of an El Cajon municipal court judge, Garfield got his law degree from the University of Southern California. He said he was always interested in the law.

“I wanted a job where you could help people and not just make money and generate a profit,” he said. “I found the law fascinating. It’s the basis of civilization to have rules that apply to everyone.”

Garfield’s first job in 1972 was with the San Diego County Counsel, which handles legal matters for the county. Back then, the office also represented schools and college districts across the county, and in 1974, he was assigned to begin representing the Grossmont Junior College District. (Cuyamaca College opened in 1978, and the district’s name was changed to the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District in 1985.)

As legal issues for schools and colleges expanded throughout the 1970s, the County Counsel was unable to continue representing districts. Garfield went into private practice with his colleagues from the county in 1979, and his law firm began doing legal work for the district in 1980. He officially signed as the college district’s attorney in 1983.

Although Garfield is not a district employee, he’s been working for Grossmont-Cuyamaca for so long that only four district employees have more longevity in their jobs. He’s worked with five district leaders and handled hundreds of legal matters on behalf of the district.

Garfield said he’s only been in court representing the district about a dozen times – which he considers a victory because that means legal conflicts have been avoided.

“We try to do things the right way so people wouldn’t have a basis to sue us,” Garfield said. “It’s preventive law. It’s trying to guide administrators to handle things correctly.”

He said his most challenging legal issue came up in the early 1990s when Cuyamaca College made plans to build a new $5.5 million physical education facility. The project was halted for a year when the gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird, was placed on the endangered species list and the facility site was found to be a gnatcatcher habitat. To mitigate the habitat loss, the district bought 20 acres by Cuyamaca College that has been set aside as a nature preserve.

“We were in a lot of negotiations with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Garfield said. “It was quite intense.”

His more enjoyable memories involve setting up the legal agreements that created the Water Conservation Garden and the Heritage of the Americas museum on the Cuyamaca College campus in the 1990s. He said even the more common legal issues, such as expelling an unruly student or terminating an employee, have their own intellectual challenges.


Tim Garfield, center, and Governing Board members
“It’s always been interesting,” Garfield said. “It’s been wonderful.”

Garfield said he is confident the district is in good hands thanks to the leadership of the Governing Board, its president Bill Garrett, and Miles.

“The district is running more smoothly now than it ever has,” Garfield said. “I’m proud to be part of a district that is so well-run and well-regarded.”

Garrett also praised Garfield’s legal acumen.

“In my 30-plus years of public service, I have never worked with an attorney who provided me better legal advice than Tim Garfield,” Garrett said. “He is a consummate professional and will be greatly missed by all of us who worked with him at the District. I always tell people, 'there is no indispensable person.’ Tim Garfield may well prove me wrong.”