Benz has been brought back to address issues that could result in millions of additional expense on lake project
Grady County commissioners have been questioning bills for legal services of one of its lawyers for the last three months and until only recently has it become public just what the attorney is working on.
At the May 15 commission meeting, the board voted to approve payment of a $9,850.95 invoice from attorney Laura Benz. Benz was one of the county’s consultants most instrumental in obtaining the federal 404 permit to create the 960-acre Tired Creek Lake.
Without a public vote or discussion by the full board, Benz was retained earlier this year to assist the county with compliance issues regarding its 404 permit.
In response to a request by The Cairo Messenger for additional information, Benz issued an emailed statement to the newspaper that revealed a person or persons have encroached on one of the county’s wetlands mitigation sites in violation of the covenants placed on the mitigation easement.
The encroachment was discovered by ecological consultants hired by the county for annual mitigation monitoring as required in the 404 permit. Exactly when the discovery was made has not been made public.
The Messenger sought additional information from Benz, County Attorney Jennifer Herzog, Grady County Commission Chairman Ray Prince and County Clerk Carrie Croy last week, but no response had been received by presstime Wednesday.
In fact, following the May 15 commission meeting when questioned by The Messenger about the situation, Chairman Prince stated, “We’ve been trying to keep this hush-hush.”
At stake are millions of dollars if the county is not successful with its mitigation plan at the end of the seven-year monitoring period due to the encroachments.
In 2016, due to the failure of another county consultant to adhere to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved mitigation plan, the county had to spend $5.8 million to obtain mitigation credits in order to comply with the requirements of its 404 permit.
“By addressing these encroachments and taking proactive measures to address the resulting deficiencies, the County is in a better position to meet the success criteria at the end of the seven-year monitoring period,” Benz wrote in an email last week to The Messenger.
Benz has been working and continues to work with the county’s ecological consultant to “quantify the encroachment and determine appropriate adaptive management activities to meet success criteria as set forth in the permit documents.”
The attorney said that possible action could include removal of non-native vegetation or planting of species within the approved mitigation plan to increase the density of woody vegetation in the area. Through that research, Benz says she will be helping the county determine the appropriate action going forward to assure permit compliance.
Based on comments made during public meetings in March, April and again on May 15, it is evident the full board does not realize the scope of Benz’s work or that inaccurate information has been stated by members of the county staff.
Through April 30, the county had paid $21,974.95 in legal fees to Benz. Questions asked by commissioners when presented legal bills for payment in March, April and May reflect the full board’s lack of information on the work Benz has been asked to do, and the issues the county is facing with regard to permit compliance. Commissioner LaFaye Copeland asked at the March 20 meeting if a $4,592 bill from Benz was a “one time deal” and Commissioner June Knight responded, “yes,” but Chairman Prince said, “We are still dealing with a few things here and there we will have to ask her (Benz) about.” Then at the April 17 commission meeting, Commissioner Copeland asked if the $7,532 bill presented for payment would be “the last one of these” and County Clerk Carrie Croy said it would be the last “big” one, but not the last.
As it turns out, a larger bill, $9,850.95, was presented on May 15 to the board from Benz, which prompted Vice Chairman T.D. David to question how much longer Benz’s involvement with the lake project would be required. In his response, Chairman Prince said that the county would be refunded some of the expenses related to the “violations” that Benz was assisting the county with.
Prince offered no specifics. Commissioner Keith Moye asked if Benz was doing any work during the month of May on the project, which Prince and Croy indicated additional work was being done by Benz.
“What percentage of this is coming back to us?” Moye asked
“All of this is coming back to us,” Chairman Prince said. However, he admitted later there is nothing in writing stipulating the county’s reimbursement.
Moye questioned why environmental attorneys on the Hall Booth Smith staff, of which Herzog is a member, were not being used rather than Benz.
Herzog defended the decision to engage Benz. “I’ve been impressed by Laura. She is very knowledgeable. We have people on staff who could do this work but I thought it was important to maintain some consistency since you had such a major changeover. We were looking for institutional memory since you had a new county attorney and soon to have a new administrator. Those with hands on experience are no longer here. Laura has been a great resource for Carrie and I,” Herzog said. She added, “she’s done an excellent job.”
Among the questions county officials and their attorneys have not answered are:
Which mitigation site was encroached upon and in what fashion?
When were the encroachments originally discovered and when and to whom were the discoveries first reported?
Who are the current owners of the mitigation site in question?
Are there any other permit compliance issues in addition to the encroachment on this single mitigation site?