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June 12, 2014

Lawsuits force city to eye outside counsel

METHUEN — The city faces close to a dozen lawsuits as the new solicitor prepares to take over the Legal Department next week and the mayor said she may not be able to handle some of the biggest cases on her own.

Mayor Stephen Zanni said he thought the City Council should keep tens of thousands of dollars set aside for outside legal assistance while new city Solicitor Kerry Regan catches up on Methuen’s legal issues.

Some of the biggest, including a potential federal lawsuit threatened by former health director Brian LaGrasse, may require the city to continue to pay Boston firm Kopelman and Paige, which has represented Methuen since July, until at least some of those are resolved.

“Those cases she’s not going to be able to handle,” Zanni said.

He added, “I’m looking to settle the biggest one.”

The council on a 5-3 vote May 19 hired Regan, an assistant city solicitor in Lowell for a little more than a year, after being impressed with her corporate law experience and her education at Georgetown University and Harvard School of Law.

“She’s coming in another week,” Zanni told the City Council Monday. “To go back a year would be very difficult.”

Several councilors were surprised at the number of pending or potential legal issues before the city. Councilor George Kazanjian, a member of the search committee that recommended Regan and an advocate of hiring an in-house attorney, said he was frustrated his requests for that information from Kopelman and Paige were not answered.

“I feel it’s very insulting I can’t get a number from Kopelman and Paige,” he said.

Others were just as surprised the mayor would say the city should pay for an outside firm to assist the new solicitor. Three councilors, Lisa Yarid Ferry, Sean Fountain and James Jajuga, argued through the spring that an in-house solicitor would cost more than retaining Kopelman and Paige, a firm with dozens of attorneys representing a swath of legal expertise, because a city solicitor would have to hire outside for certain specialized legal issues.

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