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Council stems civic center's legal bills



Published: Sat, January 5, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The mayor wonders why the board failed to keep legal spending in line with the budget it had.

By ROGER G. SMITH

CITY HALL REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Mayor George M. McKelvey and city council are putting the kibosh on legal costs incurred by the civic center board.

McKelvey said late Friday there are two reasons he, with council's support, will have Law Director Robert Bush Jr. put an immediate stop to the board's use of Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & amp; Aronoff in Cleveland:

* The $107,000 invoiced in the past five months, about $35,000 of it paid by the city so far, which exceeds the board's stated budget.

"The number is of great concern to council and the mayor," McKelvey said. "It just raised a number of questions."

* The board doesn't need its own lawyer now that both sides have agreed the city will make final decisions while board members offer recommendations on the project. The board can use the city law department for any legal help, he said.

Background: The board hired the law firm in July 2001 and agreed to pay $250 per hour, with no cap.

Benesch was chosen from among four firms. The $250-an-hour fee was the highest among the proposals. Benesch was picked because it had the most experience and expertise, including sports management.

The law firm was to handle items such as contract negotiations and preparing documents.

The company has handled issues such as incorporating the board, writing bylaws and contract negotiation with the city.

Hard to figure: Several things about the board's legal costs disturb McKelvey:

* The $107,000 in legal fees exceeds the entire $100,000 budget that the city had given the board. In that budget, the board set aside only $28,800 for legal services.

The board requested Nov. 20 that the city provide another $175,000 budget, but that never came. Of that budget, the board said $100,000 was to go toward legal fees.

*Why the board incurred legal expenses after Nov. 5. That was the date council finance chairman James E. Fortune Sr., D-6th, told the board not to incur any more expenses once its first $100,000 budget was tapped out.

The firm submitted about $10,000 in billings between November and Dec. 18. It's not yet known how much will be billed for the rest of December and so far this month.

McKelvey doesn't question that the law firm did the work.

He does wonder why the board failed to keep spending in line with the budget it had.

"It begs the question ... where might this have gone?" he said.

Civic center board officers couldn't be reached.

Although legal fees will make up a substantial portion of any civic center project, "over a five-month period, it's not a drop in the bucket," McKelvey said.

rgsmith@vindy.com




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