After enduring cost overruns, convictions on bid-rigging and a decade-long legal dispute, the Secaucus Municipal Utilities Authority voted on March 6 to cut its losses by settling part of an ongoing lawsuit that had drained taxpayers by an estimated $3 million in legal fees. In 5-0 public vote, Authority members agreed to accept a settlement that would end a significant part of the lawsuit, although at least two members during the consensus vote in closed session abstained on the issue - claiming the $947,000 was not enough. Richard Ricco and Richard Kellenberger, who had in the past wanted to let the suit go to court, abstained during the March 6 caucus session, then voted in the public session in favor of the settlement. Several critics of the settlement claim the SMUA's case was undermined when SMUA Commissioner and Town Administrator Anthony Iacono publicly called for the settlement and met privately with several of the principals of the case, against the wishes of the SMUA's attorneys. The decade-long lawsuit centered around the upgrade of the town's sewerage treatment facility during the late 1980s in which a former chairperson and executive director were convicted a bid-rigging, and cost over runs doubled the projected $14 million reconstruction cost. The SMUA sued insurance companies and bond counsels in an attempt to recover some of the money lost, and over the years, Carella-Byrne - the SMUA's legal counsel - claimed as much as $10 million might be recovered. The settlement offer has been the subject of intense debate among SMUA members since it had been detailed at a closed-door session of the SMUA and Town Council on Jan. 3, when the bond counsel agreed to increase its long-standing offer of $400,000 to nearly $1 million with the provision that the SMUA pay three subcontractors out of the settlement. Days before the case was supposed to go to court, the SMUA moved to accept the agreement, claiming it was the best offer possible. The settlement funds will come from numerous entities involved in the original project, each paying a share of the $947,000. "The Secaucus taxpayers have paid enough in legal fees over the years," said SMUA Chairman Michael Altilio. "This puts an end to that part of the case once and for all." Altilio, however, said the SMUA would move to address the second part of the case, which involved a suit against the SMUA by its former engineer, Joe Lynch. Lynch sued the SMUA claiming he had been wrongfully fired in 1987, and is seeking $5 million. "We intend to take that part of the case to arbitration and once there, we expect that part to be settled as well," Altilio said. Frank Leanza, who was the SMUA counsel in January and now serves as the town counsel, claimed the town's chances in court were not good because of the complexity of the case. He believed a jury would have a difficult time dealing with all the issues. Mayor Dennis Elwell, who has long been a critic of the way the case was handled, said he believe this was the right move at the right time. "This case has long been a drain on the resources of this community and I believe it is time to put an end to it before the taxpayers have to pay even more," Elwell said. "The money the SMUA has been paying in legal fees could be better spent educating our children or providing services to our seniors." Elwell said that he sympathized with the SMUA members who had to agonize over the decision. "For years, we have heard Carella-Byrne tell us that we could expect to get millions of dollars from this case," he said. "When those numbers began to dwindle into the hundreds of thousands, they had to re-think their options." Elwell said that in retrospect, a settlement 10 years ago would have left the taxpayers in better shape. "However," he said, "that did not happen, so we have to move on from there."