Bellevue picks new solicitor

After a heated discussion that had more to do with airing past grievances than debating the merits of hiring a new solicitor, Bellevue Council voted to replace the solicitor that has represented the borough for the last three years.

After interviewing three different law firms that submitted proposals, council voted 5-4 at Tuesday's special meeting to hire the McGrail Racunas firm as Bellevue's solicitor. Those voting in favor of the switch from current solicitor Tom McDermott cited a cost savings they estimated at $17,000 per year, and the new firm's experience in municipal law. All said that they had no problem with McDermott's work.

Council member Kathy Coder advocated giving McDermott's firm an opportunity to cut its fees as, she said, officials had done before choosing to reinstate the borough engineer, but council member Lynn Tennant Heffley said that McDermott's firm had known that cost was a major factor and could have lowered its fees in the submitted proposal. Instead, Heffley said, the firm proposed charging the same rates as it had this year.

Council voted 5-4 to appoint the new firm as borough solicitor beginning in January. In favor of the change were Heffley, Linda Woshner, Jane Braunlich, and Jim and Susan Viscusi. Opposed were Coder, Jim Scisciani, Mark Helbling and Frank Camello.

Long before it reached the point of a deciding vote, however, council members aired complaints about each other that have accumulated over the last few years, with each side making allegations of improper conduct by the other.

The volley started with calls for Braunlich to abstain from voting because one of the attorneys with the new firm had represented her in a legal challenge of the election results three years ago. Mayor George Doscher acknowledged that while there was no legal reason for Braunlich to abstain, she should do so to "eliminate all the questions, be the better person."

"They're trying to take my vote away," Braunlich stated.

She pointed out that when the prior council voted to hire McDermott, no one had questioned whether she knew any of the firms that had submitted proposals then because her vote wasn't a deciding factor.

As far as relationships with borough employees go, Braunlich said, the prior council had hired a secretary that was a mentee of a council member and paid her more than a secretary usually is paid.

Scisciani suggested that the vote be tabled until an opinion could be obtained from the state ethics commission, but a motion to table was rejected in the same 5-4 vote.

"I can't believe you're trying to replace him [McDermott] when he's done an excellent job and you admit he's done an excellent job," Helbling said. "This is ridiculous, and this is dirty."

Helbling accused the council majority of plotting to get rid of McDermott for the past year. A failed attempt to solicit proposals took place last January. Helbling said that Woshner and a Ross Township politician had told Camello just after he took office in January that he had to vote to get rid of the current solicitor. When he failed to do so, Camello said, "I haven't been spoken to again."

Coder said that the replacement of the solicitor was all part of getting back at her because of the way that she had become council president, in a mid-term coup that unseated Woshner.

"It's all about taking it back so 'I win,'" Coder said.

Helbling agreed that some members of council still had problems with the way McDermott was hired three years ago by a lame duck council. He said that there should have been no objection to the solicitor being hired by the officials who had interviewed all the candidates rather than people who were not in office at the time.

Susan Viscusi, however, said that as a council member-elect, she had sat in the audience during all of the solicitor interviews, only to have the decision on who to hire taken away from her.

"Maybe you should think about that," she said.

Viscusi also objected to allegations of a plot to get rid of McDermott.

"We all love Tom. This is not about Tom," she said. "This is about the position and about saving money."

"There's no big conspiracy here," Viscusi continued. "I actually resent the idea that there is..."

Braunlich pointed out that neither Coder nor Camello had attended the solicitor interviews held recently. Camello said that he had not come to the meetings because he did not believe there was any reason to change solicitors.

"I know the reason why you're doing this, and everyone knows it now," Camello said.

When the dust had settled, McDermott thanked all of council for giving him the opportunity to represent the borough.

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