By Jordan Cohen
MVSD Board President Vernard Richberg's letter to former board director Matthew Blair and Blair's response.
Atty. Matthew Blair, former longtime board member and president of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, is questioning board actions since his departure, including approval of trip to a conference in Las Vegas in June by one of the four directors.
In Blair’s view, none of the directors qualify for attendance.
“Directors do not hold water licenses and have no basis or technical expertise to involve themselves in the operation of a water purification plant,” Blair, a board member for nearly 22 years, wrote in a letter sent to the board this week.
“There is no long established practice of [MVSD] directors taking trips to exotic locations at public expense on the guise of attending water conferences,” he added.
In May, the board approved sending Vernard Richberg, one of two Youngstown directors, to the American Water Works Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas.
The AWWA describes itself as “scientific and educational association founded to improve water quality and supply.” Richberg, who succeeded Blair as president last May, is listed as a counselor with the Youngstown Business Incubator.
Information provided to The Vindicator from the office of Atty. Thomas Wilson, MVSD legal counsel, show Richberg was reimbursed $1,010 for the conference fee and his expenses.
Wilson cited a state statute that permits expenses for out-of-state travel by board members, provided those expenses to do not exceed more than $5,000 in any calendar year.
The trip did not appear to violate the board’s travel policy.
Several phone messages to Richberg requesting comment were not returned.
“I would like to clarify a couple of issues,” Blair’s letter states. “[P]rior directors avoided direct business relationships with member cities to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
While Blair did not name a specific director, he appears to be referring to Richard Hale, one of the two directors from Niles. Hale is president of Summit Supply and Storage in Girard.
“We’ve done business with Niles for 30 years or more [and] with Girard, McDonald [and] all the communities,” Hale said Wednesday.
Records from the office of the Niles city auditor show Summit Supply has been paid more than $101,000 for nearly 80 projects since January 2017, which included sanitary-sewer repair and maintenance. The costs of each job fell well below competitive bidding requirements.
Spokesmen from the offices of the Ohio Attorney General and the Ohio Ethics Commission said there do not appear to be any records that would indicate conflict-of-interest issues with Hale’s work for the city and his status as a board director.
“I have never done any work for MVSD, and I never will because of that perception,” Hale said.
Another Blair concern is an incident involving fishing by a director at Meander Reservoir, which bans all fishing and hunting by the public. The newest board member, Dr. Michael Neopolitan, a Niles dentist, said Blair is referring to him.
“I brought my son to Meander and wanted to have bonding time,” Dr. Neopolitan said, describing himself as a “catch-and-release” fisherman. “Was it a lack of judgment? I suppose it would have been.”
MVSD sets aside one date each year where employees and families are allowed to fish. Dr. Neopolitan said the excursion did not occur on that date.
Blair’s letter appears to be in response to a letter he received earlier this month from Richberg and the board.
Richberg’s letter requested Blair to contact the directors with any “thoughts and concerns” about the district, adding that “this best follows long-established district practices.”
The reference to “practices” may be among the triggers that led to Blair’s response to the board.
“This letter should not be interpreted as any type of accusation against any current board member,” Blair wrote. “I thought it might be helpful to current board members to better understand past practices of previous boards.”