Canton service director William L. Bartos (only very recently appointed) told Canton City Council on Monday night that Stark County commissioner Thomas Bernabei (former Canton law director) was insisting that the Columbus-based law firm of Bricker and Eckler be hired as a condition of the county joining Canton and North Canton in doing a nearly $100 upgrade on Canton's "water reclamation facility" (WRF).
While Bartos did also refer to "needed expertise" as a factor, my prime takeaway on his presentation was that the county was firm on the Bricker and Eckler law firm being hired.
And knowing Commissioner Bernabei as well as I do, I knew I needed to check Bartos' statement out.
On June 2nd of this year Canton, North Canton and the Stark County commissioners (acting on behalf of the Stark County Sewer District) reached an agreement on the upgrade.
Here is a graphic of a typical water reclamation facility.
The WRF is described on Canton website thusly:
The Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) of the City of Canton, Ohio is responsible for treating all sanitary sewage that flows to the facility from a variety of sources throughout the greater Stark County area.Between Stark County, Canton and North Canton, some 46,270 Stark County-sited households use Canton's facility.
In the past, the facility has received numerous awards. However, none in the last three years
According to an Ohio construction and business news website:
The project came about after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a mandate stating that the plant must have lower phosphorus levels come year 2018. The EPA is also expected to require the plan to lower nitrogen levels soon.The same publication broke down Stark County's, Canton's and North Canton's participation this way:
- Canton City will provide for 51 percent, or $45.2 million;
- Stark County will pay for 47 percent, or $41.7 million, and
- North Canton City will take care of the remaining 2 percent, or $1.7 million.
Answer: the purchasing of out-of-town legal services in the putting together of the construction contracts necessary to bid out the upgrade.
Anyone can appreciate that when one is dealing with upwards of $100 million in contracts, the legal fees for analyzing the project's legal needs in terms of materials, labor and guarantees on the quality/accountability provided by contracting companies, will be considerable.
Certainly, to the tune of many thousands of dollars.
And, of course, with the hiring of a Columbus-based law firm; these are Stark County user fee dollars (those 46,270 households using the WRF) of which my household is a part of, which will be going to the capital city to be recirculated for for goods, services and whatnot in the Franklin County vicinity which is some 100 miles away from Stark County.
Ward 8 city councilman Edmond Mack (himself a lawyer with the law firm Tzangas Plakas Mannos Ltd) raised the issue of "buying local" in council's work session and again right prior to the vote on the proposed ordinance authorizing Canton enter into the joint agreement.
Others raising concerns included Councilman Greg Hawk (who joined Mack in voting "no" in what turned out to be a 10 - 2 (ayes prevailing) vote.
Inasmuch as I have sat through many a Stark County commissioners meeting since the SCPR began in 2008 and, having heard the various boards of commissioners that have served during the ensuing time span emphasize buying Stark County-based goods and services, I was taken aback (to repeat myself) with Bartos' assertion that Commissioner Bernabei (or, if you will, Stark County) was adamant about having Bricker and Eckler be awarded the WRF legal services contract.
Inasmuch as I was at the commissioners' work session meeting of yesterday, I made a point of cornering Bernabei and quizzing him about Bartos' assertion that the county was fixed on having Bricker and Eckler.
To get to the end of it, it appears that there must have been a communications problem between Bartos and the county folks because it turns out that there was no mandate from the county that Bricker and Eckler be hired.
County officials were clear to me that if local law firms could be shown to have the requisite expertise, then - by all means - hire locally.
The closest that the county came to an expression that could be remotely construed to be a county condition that Bricker and Eckler be the law firm to provide legal service was a off-hand statement by county legal counsel David Bridenstine that Bricker and Eckler as "an example" of a firm, in Bridenstine's opinion, which is up to providing the expertise needed to deal with the complexities and ensuring protection of users/local government units interests going forward.
Bridenstine did say that he believes that no Stark County law firm is in a position to provide a level of legal expertise needed in formulating the WRF construction contracts.
Well, Mack disagrees with him.
Here is what Mack told the SCPR in an email dated September 24th:
I am in no position to disagree with the legal counsel provided by Attorney David Bridenstine to his client, the Stark County Commissioners. Attorney Bridenstine has a good reputation as an experienced lawyer, and it would certainly be inadvisable for the Stark County Commissioners to disregard the legal advice of their attorney under any circumstances.
I further do not dispute that the Columbus based-law firm of Bricker & Eckler would be sufficiently competent to serve as counsel relating to the Water Reclamation Project. Bricker & Eckler is a good law firm with experience advising clients in sophisticated construction matters with environmental considerations.
However, I do not agree with the notion that the legal work associated with the WRP is beyond the capability of our own Stark County law firms. For example:
Krugliak Wilkins, a firm with 50 lawyers located in Jackson Township, has vast experience representing commercial and municipal entities in a wide range of construction related assignments. Krugliak also has a significant environmental practice.
Day Ketterer, a firm of over 40 lawyers located in Downtown Canton services both public and private clients in a wide range of construction and environmental related issues. Its list of clients includes not only municipalities, but also several fortune 500 companies
Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, LLP, a firm of over 60 lawyers with an office located in Jackson Township, has significant experience in both construction and environmental law, navigating sophisticated projects and disputes on behalf of both large companies and municipalities.
Black McCuskey, a firm located in Downtown Canton with 28 lawyers, has significant experience advising clients in sophisticated matters where environmental considerations are prevalent. A summary of this experience can be found here: http://bmsa.com/practices/environmental_services.
Although I am a member of a local law firm that is likewise qualified, so as not to distract from the point, I will not list my firm with the above examples.
As a litigation attorney, I often encounter situations where adverse local businesses believe their interests are better served by attorneys from Columbus or Cleveland. Presumably, their thinking is that, if the firm is located in a bigger city, the quality of the legal representation must be better. Many times this comes at greater cost. It is not until after judgment is rendered do they realize that this is not true, and that our attorneys in Stark County are very equipped to handle the most sophisticated legal matters. More often than not, at greater value to the client.
Many of our local municipalities, such as Jackson Township and Plain Township, utilize the services of our local Stark County attorneys in a wide range of legal matters. I hope it becomes the standard that, no matter the perceived complexity of a project, all of our political agencies first contact our local law firms. If the matter is indeed too sophisticated for a particular firm, all attorneys have an ethical obligation to decline the assignment. However, I do not believe our local attorneys should be “skipped over” in favor of out-of-town lawyers based upon the perceived notion that it is beyond our skill set. When this happens we are missing out on an opportunity to re-invest our tax dollars back into our local economy. This should be avoided at all costs.
In sum, our political subdivisions request that our local law firms support their operations, which is done through paying taxes. Our political subdivisions should in turn support our local law firms by hiring our local attorneys when services are needed. We all support the hiring of local labor in connection with public projects because it re-invests in our local economy. Hiring local law firms is no different.
To me, there was not enough "due diligence" done by city and county officials in determining whether or not Stark County has law firms that have the competence and experience (and specifically, litigation experience, for the eventuality that could there be a contract enforcement problem) to qualify for the WRF business.
It is unacceptable to me as Stark County Sewer District customer and as a media person who closely watches the processes of government, to see this apparent "goof up" on "due diligence" in determining who is correct (Bridenstine or Mack) as to whether or not the business could have been awarded locally.
The county and city both need to adopt a more formal way of evaluating local capabilities and avoid what Mack was faced with Monday night: a piece of emergency legislation that needed more work to determine whether or not Bartos' assessment was correct.
In this instance, because the WRF is Canton's facility, the burden was on the Healy administration and, in terms of thorough oversight, Canton city council.
Only members Mack, Hawk, Cirelli and Schulman raised questions/concerns or made comments.
Where was the rest of council?
With Canton and Stark County struggling to cope with currently stressed economic/financial conditions, we citizens cannot abide "stumbling, bumbling local governments."
And such is what I have seen in all too many times coming out of the Mayor William J. Healy, II administration!