PARTA quiet about how it spends funds on law firm

Stacey Carmany

The Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority refused to reveal how it used more than $60,000 it paid a law firm that says it helps employers “successfully thwart organizing attempts.”

PARTA has asserted that invoices from the firm are attorney-client privileged communications and therefore not public documents.

PARTA and the union representing its drivers have been unable to agree on terms for an initial contract after more than two years of negotiations.

Drivers represented by Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 037 have been on strike since Aug. 25.

The Akron law firm Kastner, Westman & Wilkins has represented PARTA since as early as 2003.

According to the firm’s Web site, KW&W specializes in “assisting with early intervention to maintain a union-free workplace with services that include labor climate assessment techniques, management and supervisory training, team building and communications programs, and assisting with the design and implementation of strategy to successfully thwart organizing attempts.”

The Web site also says the firm represents employers only in labor and employment-related litigation and consults employers on a variety of human resource and labor-related issues, including safety, workers’ compensation, equal employment opportunity, immigration and union avoidance.

In a three-page letter, KW&W attorney Thomas Evan Green asserted that detailed invoices from the law firm to PARTA are exempt from public disclosure under the Ohio Revised Code.

Accounts payable documents obtained from PARTA show payments to the firm totaling $152,190.63 between March 2006 and September 2008, $84,474.28 of which can be attributed to contract negotiations with the Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 037. Another $4,862.60 was for services related to two unfair labor practice charges filed with the State Employment Relations Board. The remaining $62,853.75 in payments is for undisclosed KW&W services.

Other accounts payable documents show nearly $100,000 worth of payments to the firm between August 2003 and August 2004, of which $83,000 corresponds to a State Employment Relations Board representation case.

During that time, the Teamsters Local 348 petitioned for an election to represent PARTA’s full-time and regular part-time drivers. PARTA objected, stating that the only appropriate bargaining unit would also contain all full-time and regular part-time mechanics and hostelers. The disagreement stalled elections for more than nine months. When the election was finally held on May 21, 2004, of 62 votes, 27 were cast in favor of the Teamsters and 35 were cast for “no representation.”

In 2005, OAPSE petitioned to represent the drivers. The union won and contract negotiations began in 2006.

Frank Hairston, public relations manager for PARTA would not specify how the $62,000 was used, only that “many of the employment-related matters for which PARTA has engaged legal counsel have nothing to do with SERB or union negotiations.”

In an e-mail, Hairston said because the company does not employ an attorney on its staff, when appropriate, it uses “outside employment relations counsel to defend legal actions initiated against it by former or current PARTA employees.”

Hairston said “PARTA has successfully defended matters filed in the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the State Personnel Board of Review, the Industrial Commission of Ohio, and the Portage County and Franklin County Common Pleas Courts, as well as various Ohio appellate courts.”

“If PARTA did not appropriately respond and defend legal claims filed against it, such claims could result in significant liability, the current and future cost of which could far exceed the amount spent to retain qualified, experienced legal counsel,” Hairston said.

PARTA is supported in part by federal and state grants and funding, but most of its revenue comes from the $2.1 million Kent State contract, which is used to operate the campus bus system, and from a Portage County sales tax levy. The 0.25 percent sales tax levy, which was made permanent in 2005, provided PARTA with $3.7 million in revenues in 2007, and $2.1 million in the first half of 2008.

Contact transportation reporter Stacey Carmany at [email protected].