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Environmental group questions Michael Verich’s role on commission

Warren native to hear Enterprise Park appeal

HOWLAND — The agency that will hear an appeal related to the Cafaro Company’s much-debated Enterprise Park site is comprised of only two members — one of whom is Warren native Michael Verich.

At least one member of the Friends of the Mahoning River, the group fighting against development of a business park near the Eastwood Mall Complex because of environmental concerns, finds that alarming.

FOMR spokesperson Patricia Dunbar said she wonders if Verich’s position on the Environmental Review Appeals Commission may become a conflict of interest due to his longtime local ties and other public positions. Dunbar acknowledged that she doesn’t know Verich personally, but said she knows he is connected to the area.

FOMR filed an appeal with the Environmental Review Appeals Commission against Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Laurie Stevenson’s decision to grant Cafaro subsidiary North Eastwood LLC a Water Quality Certification for the much-debated Enterprise Park site.

Both Stevenson and North Eastwood filed answers denying all grounds for appeal.

The FOMR appeal is scheduled for a prehearing conference 10 a.m. Sept. 4 at the commission office in Columbus. Eight other cases appear on the Appeals Commission’s hearing schedule through the end of January 2020.

Verich, who is paid $60,000 per year in the position according to reports, did not respond to attempts to reach him for comment.

THE COMMISSION

The Environmental Review Appeals Commission hears appeals filed against the director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the state fire marshal, the State Emergency Response Commission, and county and local boards of health. It is an independent agency created in 2017 under the Ohio Revised Code.

Traditionally made up of three members appointed by the governor, the commission currently is comprised of only two people – chair Melissa M. Shilling and Verich.

EXPERIENCE

Verich, who contracts in other public capacities in the Mahoning Valley, this week announced he was resigning from his position as mobility manager with the Trumbull County Transit Board after some members of the board repeatedly questioned his effectiveness.

Verich lobbied at the state level to bring more projects and funding to the board, but his efforts produced few results. His early invoices to the board, before they upped his pay from $1,500 with expenses paid to a flat $3,000 per month, included dinners worth hundreds of dollars.

In 2018, Trumbull County commissioners declined to renew a consulting contract with Verich that began in 2012, for $2,000 per month. The board questioned vague invoices and accomplishments.

Verich also served for several years, until 1998, as an elected state representative for the Warren district. He resigned his seat to take a position on the Ohio State Employment Relations Board. He was replaced mid-term by his brother, Chris Verich.

Environmental Review Appeals Commission members serve staggered, six-year terms.

“Each member must have extensive experience in the fields of pollution control and abatement technology, ecology, public health, environmental law, and economics of natural resource development,” the commission’s website states.

Verich did not answer questions about his qualifications. He told a media outlet in 2013 he was qualified because of his time in the Ohio General Assembly and because of consulting work he did for Trumbull and Mahoning counties.

He resigned from a position on the Ohio Lottery Commission’s board, which paid $5,000 per year, to take the appointment on the appeals commission.

Verich, now in his second term on the commission, was first appointed by former Gov. John Kasich in 2013, according to staff at the appeals commission. The first term expired in October. His current term runs through 2024.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s office is in the process of vetting candidates to fill the open position on the commission, according to spokesman Daniel Tierney, who said filling the vacancy is a priority for DeWine.

Tierney declined to comment on the effectiveness of the current commission. He said its members were appointees of a previous administration.

CONCERNS

Dunbar said she is somewhat bothered by the number of commissioners currently sitting.

“It’s always been my understanding that it’s better to have odd numbers when you’ve got decisions to be made,” Dunbar said. A larger concern is determining if Verich as a local has a conflict of interest. Dunbar said she would be interested in having an expert in ethics determine if there would be reason for Verich to recuse himself in the matter.

Cafaro Company spokesman Joe Bell said he isn’t worried about Verich’s ties to the area creating a bias.

“You know, as they like to say, all political matters are local,” Bell said. “We trust that the people on the appeals board will be open and fair-minded, and we think our project and the details of it on their own merits will prevail.”

Dunbar said FOMR also is concerned Enterprise Park might get a second permit required from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the appeals process can run its course.

“We’re worried that they may be able to start developing while we’re working through the legal process of trying to get the appeal,” Dunbar said. “If the Army Corps comes across and approves their application, they might start tearing down trees.”

A decision document regarding that permit is being reviewed, according to a representative of the Pittsburgh Army Corps of Engineers. A determination may come in the next few weeks.

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