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Judge gives Elizabeth Township Authority 3 weeks to decide lawyer fees

| Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, 3:51 a.m.

A local district court judge has given the Elizabeth Township Authority three weeks to determine how much a law firm involved with the dissolution of the preceding authority board should be paid for its services.

The authority recently filed suit against attorney Thomas Shannon Barry over a payment dispute stemming from charges Barry's firm incurred representing the now-defunct Elizabeth Township Sanitation Authority.

The Elizabeth Township Authority took control of the township sanitation services in January when township commissioners voted last year to dissolve the Elizabeth Township Sanitation Authority.

At a hearing before Forward Township Magisterial District Judge Beth S. Mills on Wednesday, attorney Krisha Mackulin accused Barry of wrongly withholding $6,545 from the Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority's escrow account for legal services.

Mackulin, who works for Elizabeth Township Authority solicitor, Dodaro Matta & Cambest, said Barry's firm did not sufficiently explain the charge in invoices sent to the Elizabeth Township Authority, and she took issue with differing hourly billing rates charged by Barry.

Barry charged the Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority $80 per hour when he was the board's solicitor. After the board was dissolved, Barry charged $225 per hour.

“Certainly he may be owed a portion of those bills,” Mackulin said. But, “the thing that stood out was the hourly rate increased almost three-fold.”

According to court testimony, members of the Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority developed two escrow accounts to cover legal and engineering costs during the period of its dissolution and transition to the new authority. The outgoing authority board unanimously approved setting aside $50,000 for legal costs incurred by Barry's firm and $100,000 for Senate Engineering, which had been Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority's contracted engineering firm. Barry was granted oversight of the accounts.

Barry's firm withheld the amount it contends it is owed and sent a check for the remaining amount in the escrow account to the Elizabeth Township Authority. That authority has not cashed the check and funds in the escrow account remain untouched.

Elizabeth Township Authority chairman Ed Campbell Jr., who served on the old sanitary authority board, told the judge, “I believe Mr. Barry did the work,” adding, “If he did the work, he's owed payment.” But Campbell said Barry has not received authorization from the current board to reimburse himself out of the escrow account.

Campbell said newly seated members of the Elizabeth Township Authority refused to pay a $5,538 bill Barry submitted to them in January, citing a need for additional information on the invoice. At a February meeting, Campbell said the board authorized an $800 payment to Barry, reimbursing him for his December retaining fee only.

Attorney Amy Schrempf, who works for Barry and represented him in court, took exception to Campbell's assertion that the invoices lacked detailed information about charges and that the Elizabeth Township Authority hadn't presented a lack of billing specifics as an issue until the day of the hearing.

Barry told the court he informed the Elizabeth Township Authority's regular solicitor, Jack Cambest, in a letter that he would be increasing his hourly rate after the Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority was dissolved and Cambest requested he perform legal work related to the transition.

After hearing testimony from both sides, the judge asked, “Why can't this be worked out?” She told attorneys on both sides they hadn't worked enough to settle the matter outside of court.

The judge told Barry, “You should have known better” than to cut the check to the Elizabeth Township Authority without the board authorizing payment to him for his services.

To Mackulin, she said, “You can't give me an absolute amount” that the Elizabeth Township Authority contends it is owed.

Mills told Mackulin the Elizabeth Township Authority needs to determine an amount it believes should be paid to Barry.

The judge said she will consider their input, then render a decision at a follow-up hearing on Sept. 11 at 9 a.m.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966.