EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 3, 2013

Charges three city councilors held secret meeting

By Douglas Moser

---- — METHUEN — A city resident and union leader filed a complaint yesterday against three city councilors, charging them with violating the state’s open meeting law by discussing the city solicitor search Saturday.

Michael Gagliardi, business manager of the Laborer’s International Union Local 175, filed a letter with the City Council clerk saying Councilors Jennifer Kannan, Jamie Atkinson and an unnamed councilor met at the Starbucks in The Loop on Pleasant Valley Street Saturday to discuss “a strategy for the solicitor selection process” when the discussion should have happened at a public meeting.

The councilors called the charge of a violation unfounded.

“I feel like I’m being penalized for my vote (Monday) night,” Kannan said yesterday. “Was I surprised when I saw this? Absolutely. It absolutely doesn’t hold any weight whatsoever.”

On Saturday, Kannan, Atkinson and Councilor Lisa Ferry met at Starbucks, Kannan said. During coffee, Kannan said they discussed the Thursday special council meeting, where councilors voted to approve a $100,001 settlement with police Chief Joseph Solomon.

“It’s much ado about nothing,” Atkinson said.

Gagliardi, in his letter, said the conversation specifically was about “how to circumvent Councilor Ron Marsan, who they believed was working towards the reappointment of the current solicitor.”

Kannan said they did not discuss Marsan, though they talked about Atkinson’s suggestion at that Thursday meeting that solicitor Peter McQuillan be reappointed.

The council voted on Jan. 7 not to reappoint McQuillan, with several councilors voicing displeasure with the solicitor’s handling of several lawsuits against the city, including Solomon’s.

Gagliardi said yesterday that discussion of an issue as important to the city as hiring its lead attorney needs to be conducted in an advertised public meeting.

“It’s of critical importance for the taxpayers to hear the discourse,” he said. “If they were taking about one councilor meddling, the law requires them to do it in a public meeting.”

According to the Attorney General’s office, a meeting covered by the state Open Meeting Law is “a deliberation by a public body with respect to any matter within the body’s jurisdiction.” A city council and its subcommittees fit the definition of a public body. The AG’s office and state law define deliberation as “an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail, between or among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction.”

Among the nine-member Methuen City Council, a quorum to conduct business is five members.

Gagliardi said the Starbucks meeting violated the “spirit and intent” of the Open Meeting Law. “The spirit and intent of it is to have all public discourse relative to the council discussing public business be discussed in a public forum,” he said.

He also called on city councilors to release McQuillan’s email, municipal cell phone and office phone records to determine who McQuillan contacted during the process, adding that councilors may withhold that information by claiming attorney-client privilege.

During a potential successor’s interview before the city council, McQuillan, watching from home, texted the candidate, former Lawrence assistant city solicitor Richard D’Agostino, about a comment D’Agostino had made to the council.

Councilors voted 5-4 Monday night against appointing D’Agostino, 58, to a two-year term as city solicitor. Kannan, Atkinson and Ferry all voted no, along with Councilors Marsan and Jeanne Pappalardo.

Gagliardi, who supported D’Agostino’s candidacy and lobbied councilors on his behalf, said D’Agostino would have ended what he characterized as a period of divisiveness.

“I think D’Agostino would have been the candidate to reunite the community, instead of the divisiveness and accusations from one counselor to another you’re seeing,” Gagliardi said.

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