BY STACI WILSON
To date, the borough of Montrose has racked up $13,500 in legal fees associated with the placement of a water hydrant in a residential neighborhood.
And those legal fees are a result of a lawsuit filed by Craig Stevens of Silver Lake Twp. over a spigot installed in the borough. Stevens is being represented in the case by the employer of a member of the Montrose Borough Council.
Councilman Sean Granahan said at the Monday, May 6 council meeting that Councilwoman Julanne Skinner did not disclose on her financial disclosure form that she was employed by the Speer Law Firm until Monday afternoon.
“You are employed by the law firm hired by Mr. Stevens,” Granahan said. “Your role is as a fiduciary to the taxpayers of Montrose. At a minimum, you should have disclosed you are working for them.”
Granahan said Skinner was privy to executive session discussions about legal strategy in the lawsuit. He said Skinner could have excused herself from council while the case was going on.
The councilman – who is also a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association – said he also thinks the law firm itself is at fault.
He said the Speer Law Firm should have an ethical responsibility to alert the borough that they had an employee who was in on the executive sessions. “It’s inappropriate behavior,” Granahan said.
Skinner admitted that she did work for the Speer Law Firm and said that her duties with them “have little to do with the zoning hearing board.”
“I never disclosed anything in executive session – ever. And I did not file this case,” Skinner said.
Councilman Tony Pickett asked Skinner why she did not excuse herself from legal matters involving Craig Stevens.
“When did we vote on the solicitor being an intervener in the case?” Skinner asked.
She said that when she first came on council, effective Jan. 1, 2012, she was trying to “get my head around how council could tell (Pennsylvania American Water Company) as a public utility what they could do.”
The water company installed the spigot used by Stevens to fill a water truck which delivers water to residents in Dimock Twp. who say their water has been negatively impacted by natural gas drilling.
“The Speer Firm has little to do with borough council,” Skinner said.
Granahan said the $13,500 in legal fess amassed thus far is a compilation of the taxpayer dollars spent for the zoning hearing board, right-to-know requests and magistrates costs for “one of the simplest cases imaginable”
Granahan said the spigot installed on the Monica Marta property on Jessup St., for Craig Stevens, was a commercial enterprise in the residential neighborhood that led to the “circus of the camera, the Oneonta circus, and now lawsuits.”
The councilman said that in the past he would have spoken in private but, “These expenses are too much.”
He called the claim by Stevens “frivolous” and said there was “no end in sight to the case.”
Granahan suggested the borough file a claim to try to collect the legal fees.
He also said he would have discussed the legal issue in executive session but, given the circumstances, said, “That would have been pointless.”
Granahan also suggested borough solicitor Marion O’Malley look into the possibility of reporting the Speer Law Firm to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board.
To Skinner he said, “Whether you had an obligation or not (to disclose employment), I think they did.”
Council accepted both of Granahan’s suggestions as a motion; Skinner abstained from the vote.
Stevens attended the Monday night meeting but was not in the borough meeting room for much of the discussion.
Audience member and borough employee Alice Walsh said “$13,500 – that’s my salary. It’s been spent frivolously. I’m a resident of Ward 2 and I don’t feel like I’m being represented.”
Skinner said Walsh could express her opinion at the ballot box.
Walsh said the Stevens case was a simple zoning issue and said she believed Skinner had a personal agenda for being on council.
Skinner said, “I did not come in with any agenda. I like public service.” She pointed to her college work in political science and her involvement with the Susquehanna County League of Women Voters.
“I do have an agenda when people don’t have water to drink. That’s my concern. I have a moral issue with that,” Skinner continued.
“Don’t put it on the back of the borough and its taxpayers,” countered Walsh.