Wetzel SWA Grapples With Attorney Fees
NEW MARTINSVILLE – The Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority has questions about thousands of dollars in legal fees owed to its attorney.
SWA members deliberated during the Feb. 4 meeting as to whether they had approved legal work conducted by Silas Taylor, an attorney retained by the group.
Taylor has charged the SWA nearly $71,000 for his services during the past two years, according to SWA documents.
SWA members discussed a motion to stop paying Taylor until the matter of who authorized his billing arrangements could be worked out, but the motion failed.
The SWA approved a motion to stop Taylor from doing any more legal work on its behalf.
Taylor said as the SWA’s attorney, he didn’t want to comment on the matter.
“I don’t think I can comment on this issue at this time because I am the Solid Waste Authority’s attorney and do represent the board,” he said. “There is a possibility this matter may be resolved in another forum, so it would be improper for me to comment.”
Taylor did offer praise to the Authority.
“I have a lot of respect for solid waste authorities in general and this particular solid waste authority and its members,” he said. “They serve as unpaid volunteers. It can be a thankless and demanding job. I feel privileged to be able to represent the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority. Like anyone else who works hard for a good cause, I always hope that my work will be appreciated.”
SWA comes from the tipping fee off of the landfill, state solid waste management board and grants.
SWA member Mark Cochran has sought an advisory opinion from the state Ethics Commission.
“As an appointed public servant, what are my ethical responsibilities, duties and obligations regarding public monies being committed without authorization and approval by the authorized board,” he said.
Taylor started submitting bills to the SWA starting in June 2013.
That year, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection notified landfill operators that they needed to apply to apply for a Certificate of Need (CON) with the PSC regarding disposal of drill waste above their municipal solid waste tonnage limits.
Drill waste is a byproduct of the fracking process.
Lackawanna, which owns Wetzel County’s landfill, filed a CON in June 2013 with the PSC, according to PSC documents.
According to SWA documents, there was no motion from the SWA to intervene as a petitioner to pursue legal action regarding Lackawanna filing before the PSC in 2013 or since then.
Intervention allows a party to participate in the matter, but it doesn’t require them to participate in the proceedings, Taylor said.
Taylor submitted an invoice to the Authority in November 2013 that said he filed a petition to intervene with the PSC, according to SWA documents.
Cochran questioned who authorized Taylor to do this legal work.
“What was the mechanism that authorized Mr. Taylor to intervene in the Lackawanna’s Certificate of Need case in the PSC on behalf of the Solid Waste Authority,” he said. “It is a simple question. How did we get here? According to the Solid Waste Authority’s minutes, the board never authorized the Mr. Taylor to file that intervention.”
Cochran disputes a bill Taylor recently submitted to the SWA for legal work he did between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31 last year.
“This last bill we got was for $7,700 – I can find nothing that says we authorized those expenditures,” he said. “These are public funds that are we are all collectively responsible for. We can not turn a blind eye.”
Between June 2013 and February, Taylor has submitted about a $70,986 total bill for legal expenses, according to the SWA. To date, Taylor has been paid about $47,149 and is owed nearly $23,836 according to the SWA. Of that total, the Authority approved a motion to pay Taylor $2,000 for past work.
SWA Chairman Bill Hughes contends that not only did the Authority retain Taylor in 2013, but that the attorney continued to file briefs with the PSC on the SWA’s behalf.
“As to the authorization and due process, others will decide how the authorization occurred,” he said “At no time was any board member excluded from any parts of the ongoing litigation and the processes at the PSC. It was discussed at length over many months.”
Hughes said based on past conversations with Cochran during recent SWA meetings, Cochran seems to be focusing on his current interpretations and memories of events. However, Hughes said he and Cochran actively worked together two years ago after the intervention was filed to obtain and document important evidence on the significant impact of residents who live near the landfill due to the massive increase in truck traffic, deplorable road conditions and congestion.
Hughes said all five board members, including Cochran, sent a letter of comment to the PSC expressing all of our concerns which make up the substance of the SWA intervention.
“We wanted Silas to intervene on our behalf,” Hughes. “We shared all the same concerns and five members signed that document to the PSC.”
Hughes said the Authority wrote a letter to the DEP in July 2014 regarding waste characterization in relation to chemical and radiological nature of the drill waste. Hughes said he and Cochran personally delivered the letter to the DEP which had all five board members signatures.
Cochran said the SWA hired two different environmental consulting firms to prepare comments on its behalf concerning DEP regulations relating to the disposal of drill waste.
“We hand delivered copies of those two sets of comments and the cover letter authored by Hughes,” he said. “We presented that at a DEP public hearing. That is a whole other issue unrelated to Lackawanna’s current pending Certificate of Need case before the PSC.”
Hughes said Taylor’s billing is almost exclusively from Lackawanna’s CON case.
Hughes said besides the SWA needing Taylor’s representation, the Authority also requested permission from the state Attorney General’s office to hire an additional lawyer to help Taylor. He said the board authorized hiring legal representation from the Kay, Casto & Chaney law firm in late 2014. That firm billed the Authority more than $65,000 worth of legal work. The SWA paid the firm invoices that started in November 2014 and ended in August 2015.
“The board has known all along,” Hughes said. “We’ve spoken at length about this case over and over again, so that would be an indication that everybody knew what was going on in general terms. There is nothing secret here.”