By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — City Solicitor Peter McQuillan is preparing to step down, ending months of controversy that began in January when the City Council started searching for his replacement.
Council Chairman Sean Fountain said at last night’s council meeting that he is working with McQuillan to determine a mutually agreed upon departure date. Fountain said McQuillan is expected to leave “within the next few weeks.”
“We’ll have a date coming up in which he’ll be vacating his post,” said Fountain.
Councilors voted Jan. 7 against reappointing McQuillan to a two-year term, but he retained his job as Methuen’s top lawyer as the council worked to find a replacement. That search process stalled amid controversy in early April and has yet to pick up again.
After McQuillan steps down, Fountain said the council will likely hire a private law firm on an interim basis until a new solicitor is hired. A call to McQuillan was not returned last night.
News of McQuillan’s impending departure was not enough for Councilor Tom Ciulla, who tried to amend last night’s agenda and hold a removal hearing for McQuillan. His motion to do so failed by a vote of 7 to 2.
Later in the meeting, Ciulla criticized councilors for their “complicity” in not holding a hearing and voting to remove McQuillan.
“Definitely, some things are being swept under the rug,” said Ciulla before revealing a small, blue dustpan and brush and walking it up to the podium positioned in front of the council bench. “We need a bigger rug.”
Ciulla’s comment and use of a prop prompted the council to call for a recess. Fountain immediately left the Great Hall for the adjacent council office and was soon followed by Ciulla. After reconvening, the council then voted quickly to adjourn the meeting.
Fountain declined comment afterward.
“Very unnecessary,” said Councilor Ron Marsan on Ciulla’s dustpan. “My chairman just explained the process of what was going to happen moving forward.”
“It’s not worth commenting on,” added Councilor Michael Condon, who was left shaking his head in disagreement. “It wasn’t a nice way to end (the meeting).”
The search for McQuillan’s replacement was hampered by numerous problems, including a Feb. 6 meeting held in violation of the state Open Meeting Law. Between six and eight solicitor candidates were interviewed at the secret meeting.
Two of four finalists for the job then dropped out of the running within days of their names being made public on Feb. 26.
One month later, on March 26, McQuillan sent a text message to solicitor finalist Richard D’Agostino while D’Agostino was interviewing for the job with the City Council. News of the text message to D’Agostino prompted calls for an investigation. The Eagle-Tribune also requested and obtained McQuillan’s phone and email records, but not before McQuillan reviewed and redacted them.
A motion to appoint D’Agostino to a two-year term as solicitor was defeated 5 to 4 on April 1.
Citing McQuillan’s text message to D’Agostino, Councilor Jeanne Pappalardo last night said McQuillan should be removed from his job.
“We have cause to remove Mr. McQuillan,” said Pappalardo. “There’s unethical behavior ... He shot himself in the foot by texting.”
Fountain urged Pappalardo to refrain from making comments about McQuillan.
“I think that’s crossing some boundaries,” said Fountain.