New U. Darby solicitor starts Francis J. Catania, who is also the county lawyer, said he intends to relinquish that post.

Posted: June 26, 2003

The Delaware County solicitor started work yesterday as the Upper Darby school solicitor, replacing the district's former lawyer, who was forced to resign last month after overbilling the district.

Francis J. Catania, 45, of Upper Darby, was appointed Tuesday night by the school board and will be paid $120 an hour plus a $12,000 annual retainer.

As county solicitor, Catania's salary is $93,500, making him one of the 10 highest-paid county employees. He said he will step down from that position, possibly next month, but hoped to remain employed as an assistant solicitor. Catania said he would recommend a replacement but would not say who.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED JUNE 27, 2003, FOLLOWS: A story in yesterday's Inquirer incorrectly reported that Mary Alice Brennan was a member of the Delaware County Council, an attorney for the Upper Darby School District and a district justice. She resigned her position as district justice on Sept. 10, 2002, before she assumed her seat on the County Council.

Catania was one of three people who applied for the job; two were interviewed, Assistant School Superintendent Louis DeVlieger said. "His knowledge seemed to stand out," DeVlieger said. "His qualifications seemed to be superb."

Catania is a partner in the private law firm Catania & Parker in Media and has been employed as a lawyer with the county since 1990. His firm also does legal work for the Haverford Township School District.

Catania is also paid $120 an hour as Clifton Heights solicitor and grossed $25,000 there last year. At the same time, he was paid $4,000 as solicitor of the Volunteer Firemen's Relief Association of Upper Darby Township.

He said he was looking forward to helping the Upper Darby School District deal with challenges it may face.

"What's interesting to me is what public education is going through," he said. "We're redefining what public education is and how we're going to pay for it."

Catania replaces Barry Van Rensler, 55, of Upper Darby, who had been district solicitor for 17 years before the board asked him to resign based on reports of overbilling.

The Inquirer reported earlier this year that Van Rensler had on six occasions billed the school district for working more than 24 hours in a day. He said the billings were innocent mistakes caused by misplaced decimals. Although Van Rensler repaid the school district more than $30,000, the state Auditor General's Office launched an investigation that remains open.

In the last several years, residents had complained about the rising costs of legal fees in the district. This fiscal year, the district has $600,000 budgeted for legal fees. It is unclear how much of that has been used. Business administrator Kenneth Hemphill did not return phone messages left for him yesterday.

Van Rensler was paid $421,000 in the 2001-02 school year and $2.8 million since 1987. He was making $140 an hour at the time he resigned. Much of his work included representing the district in property-tax appeals.

DeVlieger said $400,000 is budgeted for the fiscal year that begins Tuesday because legal fees are expected to drop. There are fewer property appeals and various lawyers are doing the work Van Rensler did, but at a lower rate, he said.

The Media firm of Holsten & Associates, contracted at $125 an hour, will handle the tax appeals. Mary Alice Brennan, who is also paid as a member of County Council and as a district justice, handles student matters, earning about $100 an hour.

Some Upper Darby residents are concerned that Catania and Brennan are working both for the county and the school district.

"To me that's a conflict of interest," said Upper Darby resident Marcia Brunelli, who attended Tuesday night's meeting. "We just recycle these people. I mean, it's political incest."

Catania is often mistaken for a son of Delaware County's former president judge, Francis J. Catania, whose family has been influential in the Delaware County GOP since the 1960s. The younger Catania is a cousin, once removed, of the former judge's.

"He's a distant relative," DeVlieger said. "He's actually gained his reputation on his own and is not coming on the heels of anyone else."

Contact staff writer Barbara Boyer at 610-892-9149 or at bboyer@phillynews.com.

For more information on this issue, go to http://go.philly.com/upperdarby.

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