RAHWAY — For years Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority paid their general legal counsel, Weiner Lesniak LLP, millions for their services. But that all changed this year when one board member led a campaign for an alternative option.
After spending two years representing Springfield on the Rahway Valley Sewerage Board, Stephen Eisenberg not only saw a lot he did not like, but was willing to step forward to elicit change. He willingly admitted last week that something had to be done to change the amount of money going out to RVSA’s general counsel, of which Democratic Sen. Raymond Lesniak is a partner.
“I led the campaign to get rid of Weiner Lesniak as general council,” he said in an interview last week, explaining he had his “suspicions” about the manner in which the firm was conducting business for RVSA for quite awhile.
“In the two years I was on there, Weiner Lesniak’s billing was $1.5 to $2 million, which I thought was excessive considering what they had to show for it,” the Springfield resident explained.
“I think it’s pretty clear that they were padding the bills,” Eisenberg added.
RVSA is an independent authority that provides sewerage rights through assessments to 10 member municipalities in Union County and one in Middlesex County. The assessment each town pays, though, is determined by the amount of “flow rights” each town uses.
For example, last year Springfield’s assessment went up from the year before to $2.7 million, while Rahway went down to $2.7 million from $3 million. Clark paid a hefty $2.7 million last year, while Cranford paid $2 million, up from $1.7 million in 2011.
Garwood paid the lowest amount at $438,521, while Woodbridge paid $6.1 million.
The former board member said for the first four months he was on the RVSA board he maintained a low profile while observing what went on. Soon, though, he began to question Weiner Lesniak’s billing.
“I couldn’t really tell what was going on but their billing was excessive and their reports did little to substantiate what they were billing,” the former board member said.
The problem, Eisenberg said, was a lack of clarity in Weiner Lesniak’s billing and reports.
“I saw that their monthly reports were just a paragraph long, always the same, except for a sentence or two that was changed and that concerned me,” he said, adding that this made him realize “Weiner Lesniak was keeping the billing faucet going.”
According to checks paid by RVSA to Weiner Lesniak, monthly bills submitted by the general council ran anywhere from as low as $13,290.60 to as high as $95,510.86, with the average about $24,946.71 to $39,657 between 2008 and 2012. the firm also submitted separate legal bills for “building and equipment,” that averaged $12,532.71 monthly, but it is unclear what legal advice they provided.
Eisenberg also mentioned that whenever he brought up to the board that something was not right with the Weiner Lesniak billing or that he needed more information, no one ever got back to him.
“I thought that was strange in and of itself,” said the former board member.
Eisenberg eventually found allies in representatives from Cranford, Kenilworth, Roselle Park, Garwood and Mountainside who felt as he did about the RVSA general council. Together they decided a change was needed one way or another, so they started interviewing for a new general council firm — even though some of the board members opposed the move — and hoped that they would have enough votes to bring in new council.
As the end of the year neared, Eisenberg said the feeling that he probably would not be back on the board in 2013 grew stronger because of his push to remove Weiner Lesniak. However, that did not deter his efforts.
It all came down to the Dec. 20, 2012 board meeting when Mountainside representative Rene Dierkes introduced a resolution to have Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis serve as general council for a total estimated annual contract of $473,750, considerably less than what Weiner Lesniak was charging annually.
The measure did manage to pass in a close 6-to-5 vote, but not before Allen Chin, the Westfield RVSA representative told the board “this is not the right time to change general counsel.”
According to RVSA board minutes from the Dec. 20, 2012 meeting, Chin said the authority would have two invoices a month from legal firms and in his opinion, this was a waste of money.
Chin was referring to the fact that RVSA had to continue to retain Weiner Lesniak for legal services involving two lawsuits because they were already handling these legal issues. However, new legal council Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis would now oversee Weiner Lesniak and the way they handled reports and expenditures.
Six representatives, including Springfield, Cranford, Garwood, Kenilworth, Mountainside and Roselle Park voted in favor of hiring new legal council, opposed to the five remaining member towns of Clark, Rahway, Scotch Plains, Westfield and Woodbridge, who opposed the move.
Eisenberg viewed the victory as a last hurrah because, as he suspected, he was not reappointed as a Springfield representative to RVSA for 2013.
Although disappointed, Eisenberg said he was not surprised that he did not get local support for the reappointment. In fact, he said, Springfield Democrat political powerhouse Bruce Bergen, who just won a Freeholder Board seat in November, told him the reason he was not reappointed was because he was “not politically reliable.”
“Clearly this was a political decision,” said the Springfield resident who was initially appointed by former Republican mayor Ziad Shehady. However, when it comes to politics and the RVSA, Eisenberg prefers not being on either side of the fence.
The former board member has little doubt, though, that Lesniak had everything to do with his not being reappointed, especially since he was the force behind other board members voting against Lesniak’s law firm as general council.
Sill, during his two-years as an RVSA board member, Eisenberg said he managed to learn more about how the sewerage authority operated and to bring about change that hopefully will bring more accountability and save tax dollars for the 11 member towns. Whether it does or not remains to be seen, he said.
Eisenberg was not reluctant to speak on the record about his experience as an RVSA board member because he said the member towns whose taxpayers fund the sewerage authority had “every right” to know the manner in which the board operated. However, he had nothing but praise for the RVSA staff, who, he said, worked very hard.
“I think very highly of the RVSA management team, including Jim Meehan, the executive director,” said Eisenberg, adding that Meehan “does a great job professionally.”
In May of 2010 LocalSource investigated and broke the story that a confidential preliminary review requested by RVSA reported that the $30 million cogeneration plant that was still not operational was “worthless except for salvage.” A public accounting and litigation firm that provides damage analysis found that the firms involved with designing the facility had minimal experience with cogeneration plants and the result was a series of “assumptions and omissions.”
Although the facility was supposed to save member towns $1 million a year, the annual cost savings was found to be “zero or negative.”
The firm investigating the cogeneration plant also found there were “substantial, actual and potential conflicts of interest,” present between and among the 15 various companies involved with the project.
Now there are multiple lawsuits going on, a few of which will go on to mediation, rather than court. Calls made to Brian Hak of Weiner Lesniak were not returned by press time.