By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — The search for the next city solicitor appears to have run afoul of the state's Open Meeting Law.
At least two meetings were held to narrow the field of applicants down from 12 to four finalists, but it does not appear the meetings were publicized 48 hours in advance, as required by the state's Open Meeting Law.
While that is one violation, City Council Chairman Sean Fountain is at risk of two more violations of the law. He says he wants the entire City Council to interview the four finalists behind closed doors and that he will only release two of the four finalists' names prior to the March 4 vote - both flagrant Open Meeting Law fouls.
After a discussion with a reporter about the potential violation of conducting the finalists' interviews in secret, Fountain said, "I have to get an opinion on that."
"If that's the case, then that's what we'll do. I have no problem being open," said Fountain, who is chairing the solicitor search committee. "If that's the way the state wants us to conduct it, that's how we'll do it."
While the search committee to replace City Solicitor Peter McQuillan is allowed to meet behind closed doors to interview candidates, the Open Meeting Law in Massachusetts states that interviews cannot be held in secret session once the committee makes recommendations on finalists to the full City Council.
Fountain said yesterday he would identify the four finalists in a confidential memo to the full City Council. He said it was likely that only two names will be made public before a deciding vote on the hire is taken at the council's regular meeting March 4.
Once he identifies the four finalists to the council, all four names become public under the state's Open Meeting Law.
"We just can't put the names out there yet because of confidentiality," said Fountain, adding that councilors have signed a confidentiality agreement with applicants to prevent their current employers from learning they applied for the job.
As for not posting the two meetings held to whittle the field down from 12 to eight and then eight to four, Fountain said they were posted through the City Council office. Council Clerk Linda Gagnon said the office handled only one such notice for the search committee. A request for a copy of that notice by a reporter was not met yesterday.
City Clerk Christine Touma-Conway said yesterday no meeting notices for the search committee have been posted by her office. Neither meeting was posted on the city's web site.
The search committee includes Fountain, Councilors Jennifer Kannan, Lisa Ferry, and Tom Ciulla, as well as two local lawyers, Arthur Broadhurst and Bryan Chase. Councilor Jamie Atkinson was dropped from the committee in late January because a meeting of five city councilors is considered a quorum and is not permitted under the Open Meeting Law for preliminary screening or hiring subcommittees.
Fountain said the search committee selected finalists through initial interviews and reference and background checks. He said the committee has met twice, once at City Hall and once last week at Broadhurst's law office.
The search for a new city lawyer was triggered Jan. 7 when the City Council voted 5-4 against reappointing McQuillan to a two-year term. An opening for the job was posted on the city’s website four days later and then advertised in area newspapers.
The next city solicitor will make between $87,390 and $113,144 per year, depending on experience. McQuillan has worked as city solicitor since 2005 and makes $113,144 per year. He will stay on board until a successor is named.