Second attempt to oust solicitor falls short

For the second time in as many weeks, an attempt to oust Bellevue’s solicitor has failed.

A week after a motion to seek proposals from attorneys failed in a tie vote at the borough council’s reorganization meeting, a second motion made at the first regular council meeting on Tuesday met the same end.

The hiring and continued employment of solicitor Tom McDermott has been an issue of some controversy for the last two years. Four members of council -- who say that they were advised by another attorney that McDermott’s hiring by a lame duck council was illegal and that they could be held personally liable for his fees -- have consistently voted against paying the solicitor. McDermott and the prior council majority maintained that because he was an at-will employee who could be dismissed at any time, the lame duck council’s decision was not binding on the new council and the hiring and payment were legal.

With the old minority now taking over the council leadership, the solicitor was a primary target in an agenda designed to change old practices. Council had only eight members sitting at the reorganization meeting because Mayor George Doscher had refused to swear in member-elect Jim Scisciani because his third ward residency did not meet the three-year requirement of the home rule charter. Doscher broke a 4-4 tie vote on a motion to solicit proposals for solicitor by the end of the month.

At Tuesday’s meeting, with Scisciani seated after having been sworn in elsewhere, council member Jim Viscusi made a motion to solicit the proposals, but to spend no more than $100 on advertising.

New council president Linda Woshner said that Bellevue had paid McDermott about $92,000 in 2011, a price she said was excessive in comparison to what other communities pay for legal advice.

“I see this as a business move,” Woshner said. “It isn’t about like or dislike” of McDermott.

Viscusi agreed. “You have to look at the numbers.”

Council member Kathy Coder said that members needed to consider the fact that although the solicitor may have been paid a great deal, he also has saved the borough money, and collected about $250,000 in delinquent real estate taxes last year.

Council members Mark Helbling and Mark Panichella pointed out that McDermott was viewed by members of the public as having done a good job for the borough. Doscher said that no one on council had pointed out anything bad the solicitor had done, and suggested the hefty fees could be a matter of “sticker shock” after having had one solicitor for decades.

He and Panichella repeated Doscher’s earlier suggestion that council meet with the solicitor in an executive session and discuss any problems, outlining what performance was required.

The vote to solicit proposals for a new solicitor was defeated in a 5-4 vote. Scisciani at first attempted to avoid voting, saying that he did not know enough about the decision, but ultimately sided with Helbling, Coder, Panichella and Frank Camello in voting against the motion.

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