LAGRANGE — The Rural Lorain County Water Authority narrowly voted to hire a new law firm during a contentious meeting Wednesday.
The vote was 12 to 9 with one abstention to hire Fauver, Keyse-Walker & Donovan, where Carlisle Township Trustee Robert White works. Carlisle Township is part of Rural Water, and White would handle the bulk of the legal work for the water district under the contract.
Amherst Township Trustee Dennis Abraham and other critics of the plan to hire White’s firm said they were concerned about potential conflicts of interest if Carlisle Township and Rural Water found themselves in conflict.
“Doesn’t that present a dilemma for all parties concerned?” Abraham asked during the debate.
In its proposal, Fauver, which also represents The Chronicle-Telegram, wrote that White would take steps to avoid any conflicts.
“In order to fulfill his ethical obligations, Robert White would abstain from deliberations and voting as a Carlisle Township Trustee in all matters involving RLCWA, including the appointment of Carlisle Township’s representative to the RLCWA Board,” the proposal said. “In addition, he would advise RLCWA of the necessity to obtain outside counsel regarding any legal matters that may arise with the Township.”
White had sought opinions from both Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes and the Ohio Ethics Commission about whether he could serve as both a township trustee and lawyer for Rural Water.
The Ethics Commission concluded that while there were potential problems with White serving in the dual roles, those could be avoided by following several steps, including making sure that as a trustee he wasn’t involved in decisions involving Rural Water.
Carlisle Township’s Rural Water representative, Keith Loczi, who was appointed by the trustees, didn’t vote when the Executive Committee voted 5-2 earlier this month to recommend hiring White’s firm. Loczi was absent from Wednesday’s meeting.
The Ethics Commission also said the vote to hire White’s firm needed to be done publicly with all involved being aware of the possible conflict and that the firm’s be the lowest and best bid.
Four companies, including Fauver, submitted proposals and Fauver’s was the lowest, according to the Executive Committee’s review. The firm will be paid a monthly fee of $500 for general legal work and attending one meeting per month. Additional legal work or extra meetings would cost between $165 and $200 per hour.
Board President Dale Rundle of Columbia Township, who voted against hiring Fauver, said that on average Rural Water uses about 24 hours of legal work per month.
The second-best proposal, according to the Executive Committee, came from the Norwalk firm of Lynch, White & Jackson, which said it would charge $2,100 per month for attending one meeting and 10 hours of legal work. There would be an additional fee of $1,400 for the second 10 hours of legal work in a month and another fee of $1,300 for the third 10 hours of work the firm did. Beyond that hourly rates of between $150 and $250 per hour would be charged.
Abraham also was concerned about how the Executive Committee went about the search process. The water board voted in January to look into hiring new attorneys following complaints from some board members over legal advice Rural Water’s former lawyers gave during a dispute last year in which Pittsfield Township Trustee Mark McConnell was removed from the board.
McConnell’s removal was later deemed illegal by a county judge and he now serves as Rural Water’s vice president. The board’s previous law firm, O’Toole, McLaughlin, Dooley & Pecora, resigned Feb. 4 in a letter that said that firm didn’t want to work based off a monthly fee given the complexity of the legal issues facing Rural Water.
Abraham said the January vote called for Rural Water General Manager Tim Mahoney to prepare a request for proposal for legal services and then bring it back to the full board for approval.
But instead, Abraham said, the Executive Committee launched a search, conducted interviews and ultimately recommended a new law firm.
“I really feel the Executive Committee has usurped the authority of the general board,” Abraham said, something he warned could possibly lead to someone challenging the legality of how the new law firm was hired.
Huntington Township Trustee Mary Beth Derikito said Abraham’s concerns showed the dangers of Rural Water operating without legal advice.
“I think this just points out how much we need an attorney on this board,” she said.
The board voted to move ahead with hiring a law firm despite what Rundle acknowledged were problems with how the Executive Committee went about the selection process.