METHUEN — The monthly legal bill from the private company representing the city surpassed $10,000 for the second straight month in December as the City Council tonight plans to consider whether to open a second search for an in-house solicitor.
Kopelman and Paige, a Boston law firm that represents more than 100 cities and towns in Massachusetts, billed Methuen $11,650.32 in December, for a total of nearly $55,000 since the firm took over representation last summer.
The council plans to vote tonight on whether to launch a new search. Its meeting tonight was rescheduled from Tuesday due to the snow.
“A lot of the things you want in a city this big, with department heads and the mayor and the City Council, we need to access the legal team whenever it’s necessary,” said council Chairman Jamie Atkinson. “Regardless of the bill we need to reopen the solicitor search because it’s in the best interest of the city to have an in-house solicitor.”
That brings the total spent since July to $54,962.39. November’s bill totaled $12,769.63. The rest were below $10,000.
Council Vice Chairman Thomas Ciulla said he supported searching for a new solicitor, but thought Kopelman and Paige should see through any cases it takes on for the city.
“We can start a search, but Kopelman and Paige is going to work on the lawsuit,” he said. “Hopefully they can assist us while we hire a city solicitor and get him up to speed.”
Ciulla referred to a potential lawsuit by former Health Director Brian LaGrasse.
Several councilors have said they would support searching for a new solicitor, including George Kazanjian, who made it part of his campaign last fall.
Councilor Sean Fountain said he would oppose searching for a solicitor and disputed the contention that having a solicitor would save the city money.
“Either way you slice it up, even if there’s an $11,000 or $12,000 bill, there’s still a cost savings for the city, rather than someone in the office with salary, pension and health care,” Fountain said. “Plus the amount of money the city spent on outside legal bills over the last few years, it significantly outweighs what Kopelman and Paige is charging.”
Former city solicitors sometimes hired outside firms to assist on certain cases or issues.
According to an account of the expenses from the city auditor that Fountain will share with councilors tonight, Methuen spent $131,644.41 on outside legal expenses from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2013. Kopelman and Paige was hired during the summer last year after former solicitor Peter McQuillan resigned.
More than half of that amount – $78,203.17 – went to the Boston firm Davis, Malm & D’Agostine in 2011 as the city prepared for a Superior Court trial over allegations former city solicitor Maurice Lariviere sexually harassed a City Hall employee who worked for him in 2005.
The city settled for $250,000 in January 2012 rather than go to trial and paid about $475,000 total in outside legal bills for that case going back to 2007.
The recent accounting also included $20,000 to attorney Joseph Sulman, though that was a payment for police Chief Joseph Solomon’s legal fees as part of a settlement reached with Solomon in 2013, and not consultation fees.
Roughly $16,700 was paid for Solomon contract claims, and another $16,700 for a solar power purchase agreement in 2011 and 2012.
The council voted in January 2013 against reappointing McQuillan, who earned $113,144 his last year as solicitor, for a two-year term as solicitor.
A search process began that turned out to be seriously flawed, neither of the two finalists from that search were appointed in the end. McQuillan remained on as solicitor per the city charter until accusations surfaced he interfered with the search process. He left in May, and Kopelman and Paige was hired afterward.
Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.