Tube City Almanac

February 01, 2011

Round 2: Council Clashes Again Over Attorneys' Contracts


The spirit of cooperation among city officials requested in January by Council President Michael Cherepko lasted for one meeting.

At Tuesday night's work session, members of city council again locked horns over the hiring of both a city solicitor and a "special counsel."

The dispute centers around Mayor Regis McLaughlin's decision to replace City Solicitor J. Jason Elash with the Pittsburgh law firm of Ira Weiss. In January, four members of council voted to retain Elash as "special counsel."

. . .

Council on Wednesday will consider contracts with both Weiss and Elash to provide separate legal services.

But announcement of that agreement on Tuesday brought an angry accusation from Councilman Darryl Segina that Cherepko and other councilors violated the state's open meetings laws, and a counter-charge from Councilman Dale McCall that Segina is "grandstanding" in his campaign for mayor.

Three city councilors --- Cherepko, Segina and A.J. Tedesco Jr. --- are declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor, along with McLaughlin and City Controller Ray Malinchak. Because of the city's heavy Democratic voter registration edge, the Democratic nominee has an inside track in November's general election, barring a well-organized write-in campaign.

McLaughlin has declined publicly to state his reasons for wanting Elash to be replaced, though Elash's past political support of Cherepko has been rumored to be a factor.

. . .

The contracts to be considered by city council would name Weiss' office as the official city solicitor at a fee of $5,000 per month, plus $105 per hour for litigation and negotiations. Longtime McKeesport attorney Bert Moldovan would represent Weiss locally.

Elash, who was city solicitor from 2004 until 2010, would receive $3,333 per month for additional services as approved by city council and Weiss' office.

Neither attorney would receive any fringe benefits, and both would be outside contractors, not city employees. The combined retainers for both lawyers would be $20,000 less than the $120,000 salary Elash alone earned in 2010.

. . .

Moldovan said Weiss has agreed to represent McKeesport in 2011 at a substantial discount from his usual fee. Tedesco questioned why the city needed two separate attorneys.

"We have a lot of projects that are going on in this city which have been going on for several years, and which Mr. Elash has been involved with," Cherepko said. "Rather than Mr. Moldovan being thrown into this totally blind, I think Mr. Elash can assist Mr. Moldovan, and together they'll serve the city very well."

That brought a rebuke from Segina. "Ira Weiss at one time was solicitor for the County of Allegheny and his office has 11 attorneys," Segina said. "I'm sure if there was any problem, one of them could come in and solve it."

. . .

The agreement was negotiated by Elash, Weiss, Moldovan and city council, Elash said, but Segina disputed that, saying he and the other council members who voted against Elash's appointment weren't consulted by Cherepko.

Segina accused Cherepko of holding an unadvertised meeting to discuss Elash's contract, in violation of the state's open meetings law, or "Sunshine Act." No such meeting was held, Cherepko said.

"We discussed this last month at a public meeting," he said. "We had a problem. We came up with a solution. If you're not for the solution, don't vote for it."

. . .

Other items on Wednesday's agenda include appointments to several committees and authorities, a contract for lighting at the Sulfur Springs ballfield in Renziehausen Park, and a maintenance agreement for city hall computers.

Council meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the second floor of the Public Safety Building (the former municipal building), 201 Lysle Blvd. at Market Street.

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