Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas spoke out Monday against the county's hiring of private legal counsel in the Mall Road connector road case, which he says has cost the county nearly $9,000 since November.
Commissioners will consider a motion to direct the County Prosecutor's Office to take over matter when they next meet for a special meeting Thursday. The meeting will start at 9:30 a.m.
Thomas initially made a motion that commissioners withdraw their legal entry filed Nov. 20. The filing asked the Belmont County Common Pleas Court to examine a 1999 ruling by the court directing Lou Stein and Home Pro Enterprises to pay for the construction of a connector road from U.S. 40 to property owned by Stein adjacent to the Ohio Valley Plaza. No development was ever started on the land, and the road projected was never initiated by Stein.
Thomas said he "couldn't get his arms around" why the commissioners were even involved in the case. He added the Stewart family had filed their own motion in the case seeking Stein to pay for the road development "and the case will move forward whether we're involved or not."
He added he also was "very, very disappointed" the county has paid the Isaac Wiles law firm of Columbus $8,981 since November for outside legal counsel in the case.
"My personal opinion is this is too high, and not in the best interest of the taxpayers of Belmont County," Thomas said. He said he contacted the Belmont County Prosecutor's Office on the matter, who said they were able to represent the county in the case.
Commissioner Ginny Favede and former Commissioner Chuck Probst voted in favor of hiring the outside counsel and entering the lawsuit.
"It was brought to the forefront because the commissioners are being asked to put money toward something that this lawsuit says Mr. Stein already agreed to pay for himself," Favede said. "It's not a waste of money in the fact we are protecting taxpayer dollars. ... I for one think that's a responsible use of taxpayer dollars. I think the conflict of interest is there are too many people involved in this case that have something to gain for it to not be viewed as a conflict of interest."
Commissioner Matt Coffland noted he voted against the motion to hire the Isaac Wiles firm as legal counsel for the case when it came before the board in November.
"It is a waste of our dollars, filing a land dispute..." he said. "The county has no dog in this fight ... it was the wrong decision made in November, and I stand behind that."
Thomas said each time Aaron Glascow, attorney with Isaac Wiles, comes to Belmont County from Columbus, the county is billed $646.
He offered to amend his motion that Belmont County not withdraw from the Stewart case, but rather direct the County Prosecutor's Office to take over representation to save taxpayers money. Favede indicated she would be open to the compromise.
Property owner Bob Stewart was also present at Monday's commission meeting, and directly asked Thomas if he owned any of the property near the connector road in question.
Thomas answered he was, in fact, among four owners of six acres of property along U.S. 40 across from Porterfield's Drive Thru Farm. The group owns the property through a corporation they call BDM Inc., he explained.