County will pay VSC legal fees

LISBON — The Columbiana County Veterans Services Commission’s legal victory over county commissioners has come to an end, with the commissioners agreeing to pay the VSC’s legal fees.

A judgment entry filed Nov. 9 in county Common Pleas Court stated commissioners agreed to pay $2,565 to Salem attorney Ian Robinson for expenses incurred in representing the VSC in its funding lawsuit filed in late 2016 against commissioners. This was after commissioners failed to provide the full amount of funding the VSC had requested from them for 2017.

The lawsuit was resolved in late July when commissioners agreed to provide the VSC the full amount it sought — a difference of $36,000 that Commissioner Mike Halleck promised all along to provide the VSC but during the second half of the year. At the time of the settlement, the parties had yet to resolve whether commissioners would pay the VSC’s legal fees.

According to the Nov. 9 proposed judgment, which was mailed for the visiting judge to sign, the county prosecutor’s office was the VSC’s legal counsel by law and that created a conflict of interest because the prosecutor’s office also represents commissioners. Because of the conflict, the VSC had no choice but to hire an attorney.

This also created a conflict of interest for commissioners, who were represented by Wellsville attorney and county port authority member Nicholas Amato. He worked for free.

The decision to pay the VSC’s attorney fees was not run through a commissioner meeting for approval, and the newspaper only learned the entry had been filed while checking on the court case last week. Halleck said the decision to pay Robinson’s attorneys was part of the authorization they gave Amato to resolve the lawsuit.

“It was time to put an end to this,” Halleck said. “We probably could have won but how much money do you want to spend? The whole thing was unnecessary.”

Commissioner Halleck prepares the county budget and was adamantly opposed to providing VSC the additional funding it wanted until the second of half of the year because of funding concerns. He was dismayed the VSC did not take him at his word when he promised to come up with the additional funding later in the year.

The VSC is requesting a higher budget for 2018, and Halleck said he has told department heads not expect any more funding than they received last year, setting up another possible showdown with the VSC board.

“I will tell you this, if this happens again the next time we will have to retain (paid) legal counsel,” Halleck said.