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Ruling by Judge Sweeney on outside counsel flimsy

Published: Tue, October 26, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

Pardon our being suspicious of Judge Maureen Sweeney’s sudden concern about the expenditure of public dollars — after she and her colleagues in the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court have demanded more than $250,000 over the $2.03 million allocated by the county commissioners.

Indeed, Sweeney’s refusal to let the commissioners and the prosecutor hire a Columbus law firm to represent them before the Ohio Supreme Court in a case related to the so-called Oakhill controversy is so transparent as to be ridiculous.

In her ruling, the judge made it clear that she will determine if outside lawyers are necessary to defend commissioners David Ludt, Anthony Traficanti and John McNally, Prosecutor Paul Gains and Assistant Prosecutor Gina Bricker. And, if she concludes that such hiring is justified, she will decide who the lawyers will be.

The county officials are the defendants in a mandamus action in the Supreme Court filed by a lawyer for the Cafaro Co. affiliates over public records pertaining to the county’s purchase of Oakhill Renaissance Place, the former South Side Medical Center. The purchase facilitated the relocation of the county Job and Family Services agency from the Cafaro-owned Garland Plaza on Youngstown’s East Side.

Gains has said he intends to appeal Judge Sweeney’s ruling to the 7th District Court of Appeals. That’s the proper course of action considering the extenuating circumstances surrounding Sweeney’s position.

In July, we took the common pleas court to task for being so unreasonable in its demand for more money, given the county’s dire financial condition brought on by the national economic recession.

We also made it clear that a meeting being sought by the judges with the commissioners must be held in public. Residents have a right to hear how the judges justify such an eye-popping demand.

As we said in July, “It’s time the private sector taxpayers of Mahoning County, who have had to deal with the reality of pay freezes, givebacks, layoffs and even job eliminations, found out just how well government employees have fared. The guarantee of a lucrative pension, complete with taxpayer-funded health care, remains intact for all public workers and has not been affected by the economic contraction.”

What makes this situation even more egregious is that Sweeney and her colleagues have threatened to sue the commissioners in the Supreme Court for not caving in to their demands.

So, when the judge contends that she has the ultimate authority with regard to the hiring of outside counsel and that the hourly rate paid to the lawyers must be a consideration, we aren’t impressed.

Past practice

In fact, we believe the court of appeals should explore the issue of the judge’s authority, given that not too long ago Commissioner McNally, who voted against the resolution to hire the Columbus law firm, was able to retain a law firm from Cleveland — at taxpayers’ expense — to defend him in an Oakhill-related action because the county prosecutor wasn’t able to. The common pleas court gave permission for the hiring and did not raise the issue of fees or the selection of a local attorney. Three other county officials, Auditor Michael Sciortino, Treasurer Lisa Antonini and John Zachariah, then head of JFS, also were permitted to hire the lawyers of their choice — at taxpayers’ expense.

How was that situation different from what the commissioners and Gains are now requesting?

It appears that Judge Sweeney is trying to bully the commissioners because of the budget impasse. Such tactics must not go unchallenged.

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