Warren law director candidates battle over costs, services

WARREN — In the battle for the Democratic nomination for law director in Warren, Law Director Gregory V. Hicks and Safety Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa are focusing on the other’s legal experience and how the office spends money.

Hicks, 68, has been the city’s law director for 27 years. Cantalamessa, 45, has worked as safety service director for seven years under Mayor Doug Franklin.

Cantalamessa said if he’s elected, the amount of legal work done by private attorneys for the city will drop significantly. Hicks’ office has had approximately $2.1 million worth of legal work done by outside attorneys, according to Cantalamessa.

However, according to Hicks’ records, the city paid $750,000 in outside attorney fees from 2004 to the present. The majority came from a lawsuit dealing the environmental issues filed by the Freshwater Accountability Project filed in June 2017.

Hicks provided statements showing how much was paid to five law firms his office hired over the period.

Cantalamessa, according to documents he provided, claims the law department hired outside firms, which are not on the list provided by Hicks, as well as several insurance carriers and firms hired to do workers compensation cases.

Warren Auditor Vince Flask said his office provided financial records to each campaign.

“The safety service director asked for financial information for all outside law firms hired by the city,” Flask said. “The law department requested information for specific law firms hired.”

Hicks defends the use of outside attorneys, saying the department has paid for outside attorneys on relatively few occasions.

He insists the department hires outside attorneys only when cases have been so specialized that no one in his office had expertise to best represent the city or when conflicts of interest exist because the city is legally responsible to represent both sides of a case.

“When we were informed of the lawsuit filed by Freshwater, we were advised we better get a law firm that had experience with environmental lawsuits because if we did not, we were potentially facing fines in the millions of dollars as well as court costs,” Hicks said.

In the end, the city paid $116,616 for legal fees in the Freshwater Accountability lawsuit, but Hicks said it could have been more “if we did not do the proper preparation work.”

Cantalamessa argues even if some cases required specialized legal knowledge, Hicks could have looked at a wider variety of firms.

“Even in the Freshwater case, if the law department had to hire an outside firm, why one that cost $450 per hour?” Cantalamessa said. “I’m sure there are attorneys in the Mahoning Valley that would have been able to handle it at a much lower cost.”

Cantalamessa said the law department over the years has hired outside attorneys to do workers’ compensation cases and to handle cases involving disputes between police and citizens alleging police wrong doing or brutality.

“There is no reason why the law department should not be able to handle workers’ compensation cases,” Cantalamessa said.

Hicks said workers’ compensation legal work has been done by firms hired by the city’s human resources department, not his office.

However, Franklin said human resources does not have the authority to hire attorney.

“If a case cannot be handled within the department and a lawyer is needed, it most be approved by the law department,” he said.

Hicks criticized Cantalamessa’s handling of the Old Avalon Golf Course contract, suggesting Cantalamessa failed to realize its language would allow former course operator Larry Petrozzi to opt out of the contract at any time within the last 60 days of the year.

“At the time the possibility of Petrozzi may leave had come out, Cantalamessa told a council committee that Petrozzi could not leave,” Hicks said.

However, within the contract, there was an clause where Petrozzi was able to state he planned to withdraw within 60 days at the end of the year.

Cantalamessa defended the contract, saying it was the first time anyone had gotten a personal financial guarantee on his personal assets.

“This was a problem with the contract the city had with John Kouvas because the contract was with an LLC, which did not have an any assets,” he said.

Cantalamessa said Hicks’ deputy law director was involved when he was writing the contract for Petrozzi, so his office was aware of the contract and its language.

“We will review contacts written by others and offer our advice,” Hicks said. “No one, however, has to follow our advice. Even though it would be in their best interest to so because they would be protected.”

Cantalamessa would like to find ways to strengthen local regulations dealing with sober houses in neighborhoods without going against federal laws.

“There are some voluntary regulations that some recovery centers are doing in different communities,” he said. “We would like to find ways to adopt these regulations in city codes.”

Hicks said the city is nearly complete with U.S. Department of Justice consent decree. Hicks, a former police officer, said the Justice Department placed the law department in charge of fulfilling the terms within its consent degree.

Working closely with police Chief Eric Merkel, Hicks said they were able to increase general training for police officers, institute use-of-force policies and send officers to crisis intervention training programs aimed at diffusing situations.

Cantalamessa admitted during a recent debate he had been ticketed on, but not convicted of, driving under intoxication twice in 19 years. The most recent case was in November 2009, a year before he became safety service director. In each case, he was fined on lessor driving offenses.