By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — They served together on the City Council for four years. But by January 2012 the relationship between Stephen Zanni and Jennifer Kannan began to change.
Just days after Zanni was sworn in as mayor, Kannan was elected chairwoman of the council. And so began a combative two-year stretch at City Hall that will culminate Nov. 5 when Methuen residents elect their mayor.
Zanni, 69, of Savoian Drive, is seeking a second two-year term. Kannan, 48, of Grandview Road, is in her final year as a councilor at large and is the only mayoral challenger this fall.
Both candidates agree that relations between the mayor and City Council have been contentious.
In an interview last week, Kannan said the relationship is “broken.” Kannan said Zanni is an ineffective communicator who has been unable to work with the majority of councilors during “a reactive” first term in office.
“He lacks the ability to sell to the council what is good for the community,” said Kannan.
Kannan said Zanni has often left councilors “out of the loop” when it comes to community events. As a recent example, she said several councilors were never told about a ribbon cutting at the new 3-D Barbershop on Lowell Street.
If elected mayor, Kannan said she will ensure that a member of her staff serves as council liaison, among other duties.
Kannan said she is a good communicator who — as council chairwoman in 2012 — helped lead a group that included five rookie councilors. One of them, Sean Fountain, took over as chairman for Kannan beginning in January.
“I believe an informed council is the best to make a decision,” said Kannan. “I’m a consensus builder and I will communicate with all department heads and the council to make sure everybody’s on the same page.”
Zanni and Kannan have clashed on a number of issues over the last two years — including Zanni’s failed bid to privatize the municipal Information Technology department. Zanni pointed to IT as a turning point with the council.
“I think that’s when it got contentious,” said Zanni. “When IT came up, things changed quite a bit.”
Zanni said Kannan’s decision not to hold a public hearing before voting on IT privatization in late 2012 was wrong.
It was initially believed a 7-2 council vote that November killed the mayor’s proposed “reorganization” of the four-employee IT department. But Zanni contended a public hearing should have been held before the vote.
“I wasn’t out to embarrass them,” said Zanni, referring to councilors. “I wanted to follow process. I wanted to follow the city charter. Some of them still don’t know the charter.”
The public hearing was eventually held before the council voted again to defeat the mayor’s IT privatization plan.
Zanni said his relationship with the council “became more adversarial” once Kannan announced she was running for mayor in March. But Zanni said he has still maintained an open-door policy with all councilors.
“They’ve had an opportunity to come in here and speak one-on-one,” said Zanni. “There’s definitely councilors who don’t have a problem speaking with me one-on-one. Since she announced, I can’t recall the last time she’s been in here.”
In his two years as mayor, Zanni said he’s learned that it’s best to share his plans with councilors in advance.
“The relationships have to be one-on-one,” said Zanni. “Any time they want to come in, I have an open door. I think with a new council you have to do the same thing.”