Methuen council, mayor trade barbs over contract

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Bill Kirk, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
·4 min read
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Apr. 6—METHUEN — A debate over funding for the new, interim police chief got a little chippy Monday night as Mayor Neil Perry accused City Councilors of overstepping their authority regarding employee contracts.

Councilors said they wanted to see the contract Perry has signed that will bring retired Westford police Chief Thomas McEnaney to the city for three months at a cost of $45,000 — an expenditure that has to be approved by the council. He starts next week.

"When will we see the contract?" asked At-Large City Councilor Jessica Finocchiaro. "Could we have more explanation? The first I heard about this was in the media. Could we have more public explanation? What's his background?"

Council Chairman Steve Saba agreed, noting, "I understand the councilor's point. We don't vote on the contract, but we are voting on the money. So we should see the contract so we can see what we are voting on. Would you be willing to show us this?"

Perry fired back that the council had no right under the City Charter to view the contract because it was for less than $50,000. Any contract over $50,000 must be approved by the council.

The hiring of a new chief is fraught with political peril. Perry said Monday night it is the single largest decision he will make during his tenure because the next chief will outlast his service as mayor.

Also, former Chief Joseph Solomon left under a cloud of controversy following a damaging investigation by the state Inspector General, which found wrongdoing at many levels of the department. An audit commissioned by the city echoed many of the findings in the IG's report while also pointing out even more evidence of misdeeds.

Following the release of the reports, Solomon and police Capt. Greg Gallant were placed on paid, administrative leave. Solomon has since retired, although litigation may be on the horizon if the city and Solomon can't agree on a final retirement package. The former chief could end up with a pension of $250,000, not including a one-time payout for unused vacation and sick time as well as travel pay. Some estimates have put that one-time sum at about $1 million.

Amid that backdrop, the council and mayor Monday night had a tense conversation over the right of the council to review the interim chief's contract.

"You are not required to look at contracts under $50,000," Perry said, to which Saba replied, "Well we don't know what we are using it for."

Perry retorted, "Let's be serious here. Do you think I'm using it for personal expenses? You can't pick and choose parts of the charter you want to follow. You want the contract, but it's under $50,000."

"So the answer is 'No?'" Saba asked.

"Whatever," Perry said.

"So the answer is 'Whatever?'" Saba asked.

At that point, Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Maggie Duprey chimed in.

"The contract goes through my office and the city solicitor," she said. "It has been reviewed by both offices."

While Saba seemed mollified by that answer, noting — "That was a much better answer" — Finocchiaro was not.

"We went through so much to make sure we clean up how we do this procedure," she said. "I will be voting 'No' because I can't see that documentation."

In the end, the council voted 7-2 in favor of funding the position for three months with Finocchiaro and Nick DiZoglio voting against it.

Perry said Tuesday that McEnaney will start next week and that acting chief Kris McCarthy remains in the position until then.

Perry lashed out at Saba and Finocchiaro Tuesday morning, saying, "They keep saying they are working for the betterment of the city. Steve says he wants me to succeed, but what he says on the floor (of the council meetings) doesn't match what he tells me in private meetings."

He added, "I don't take it personally, but I don't think he wants me to succeed."

During the meeting, Perry told the council that he was putting together a police chief search committee that would include two residents — including at least one member of the Hispanic community — one City Councilor, someone from the Human Resources and Finance offices, a representative of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association and someone from the mayor's office.

He expected the search to take at least six months. Perry said he hopes to keep McEnaney on board for the length of time it takes to hire a new chief, but that he will have to issue a request for proposals so other consulting firms could bid on the interim chief's contract, according to the state IG's office.

Perry also acknowledged that he has sought guidance from the Ethics Commission on the use of MRI as the city's hiring consultant because his cousin Bruce MacDougall, a former Methuen police chief, works for the agency.

"My first cousin does work for MRI but he does not benefit financially from this transaction nor do I," he said, adding that he's received the OK from the state Ethics Commission to work with the company.