PHOENIXVILLE >> Are residents in the borough footing a larger bill in order to settle a political dispute?
In a 5-3 decision, Phoenixville Borough Council selected Wolf Baldwin and Associates to provide its legal services during Tuesday night’s meeting. Council President James Kovaleski, Vice President Dana Dugan and council member Jennifer Mayo dissented.
Attorney Charles Garner will act as primary solicitor, while attorney Matthew Hovey will serve as his backup. The firm beat out Eastburn and Gray; Friedman Schuman; Gawthrop Greenwood; Unruh Turner Burke and Frees and Wisler Pearlstine for the job.
Many council members said they liked Wolf Baldwin’s experience over the other firms in contention.
“The firm that we chose has very solid municipal experience,” said council member Christopher Bauers. “I think we’re entering a period in Phoenixville where that’s going to benefit us tremendously.”
The Pottstown-based firm charges $135 an hour and $165 for litigation, which is a slight rate increase from the borough’s previous solicitor, Friedman Schuman, which charges a $125 an hour rate. Wolf Baldwin currently handles legal services in places like Pottstown, Pennsburg and Upper Providence, to name a few.
The solicitor change comes in response to Friedman Schuman’s initial hiring during the January, 2014, reorganization meeting, which some on council felt was politically motivated and wasn’t handled properly.
“When council was first selected,” said council member Michael Kuznar after the meeting, “a firm was chosen with no (Request For Proposal). We had come in and out of nowhere were told that the Democrats were going to be getting rid of the current solicitor that they had. They were going to reinstate one of their own.”
Other members of council, Kuznar said, realized the way in which Friedman Schuman was hired initially was “extremely political” and agreed to hold a new RFP process in order to select a firm in a more transparent way.
“Last year,” said council member Jon Ichter II after the meeting, “the solicitor change was done in a non-transparent way. So the idea to open it up in a transparent and open RFP process was why we changed solicitors.”
During the special March 3 meeting, Alyson McDonald, representing Friedman Schuman, said that as of April 1, she and backup solicitor Sean Kilkenny, would no longer be a part of Friedman Schuman and instead would be starting a new firm; the Law Offices of Sean Kilkenny. Ichter said council wouldn’t have been able to consider that firm as a potential candidate though, without restarting the RFP process, because there was no RFP submitted for the Law Offices of Sean Kilkenny, only Friedman Schuman.
Kovaleski later clarified that, while Ichter was technically right, McDonald did state that nothing would have changed under the new firm, besides the name. The price and representation would have remained the same.
“It is a different entity but the same attorneys,” he said.
Some members of council said they believed that by hiring the more expensive Wolf Baldwin, taxpayer money was being wasted.
By hiring Wolf Baldwin, Dugan said, money that could have gone to other borough projects like hiring a new police officer or funding parks and recreation projects is now being spent on legal charges.
“I don’t understand why we wouldn’t continue along with the solicitor that we have right now for a savings of an extra $10 from the current rate,” she said, “… That’s a significant savings and I think it’s fiscally irresponsible to do that.”
Mayo echoed Dugan’s comments by saying she wasn’t in favor of spending more when the current solicitor was “perfectly fine.”