METHUEN — City councilors had plenty of questions last night about Mayor Stephen Zanni’s decision to hire a private law firm in the federal lawsuit filed against the city by police Chief Joseph Solomon, but the mayor only had so many answers.
Led by Councilor Jennifer Kannan, several councilors criticized Zanni’s hiring of the Quincy-based firm Murphy, Hess, Toomey and Lehane to represent the city next Tuesday during a scheduling conference in Boston.
They also questioned why an outside firm is needed when the city presently has two lawyers on staff.
Zanni said the city has not yet paid the firm, but he did not answer when Kannan asked how much next week’s appearance in court will cost. Instead, Zanni suggested the council discuss the topic with him in a closed-door executive session.
In response, Kannan said she may propose opening the city budget to block Zanni from being able to pay the firm.
“Where do you plan on getting the money from to pay outside counsel?” asked Kannan. “I’m not going into executive session. I’m asking a simple question.”
Zanni said his decision to hire the firm is in the best interest of the city. It comes after the City Council voted against reappointing City Solicitor Peter McQuillan to a two-year term in January. The search for McQuillan’s replacement is ongoing.
While McQuillan will keep his job until a successor is named, Zanni has acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the city’s top legal post has made planning for the federal case with Solomon more difficult. “I’m not going to jeopardize the city,” Zanni told councilors last night.
McQuillan also backed Zanni’s decision last night, telling councilors Murphy, Hess, Toomey and Lehane is a “very prominent, experienced, well-respected law firm.”
“My departure is obviously an impediment,” said McQuillan. “It simply makes sense to have capable counsel representing the city during the transition from the former solicitor to the new solicitor.”
Several councilors — including Kannan, Lisa Ferry, Tom Ciulla and Jeanne Pappalardo — didn’t appear to agree.
The councilors asked why the private firm is needed after Zanni hired Assistant Solicitor/Human Resources Director Anne Randazzo, in part to limit the outsourcing of the city’s legal work. Randazzo makes $80,578 annually.
Reading from meeting minutes when Randazzo was hired in early 2012, Ferry said Mayor Zanni told city councilors that Randazzo’s addition to the city staff would save “a fortune” in outside legal fees.
“Best thing since sliced bread was going to be assistant city solicitor,” added Pappalardo. “I didn’t think we needed it. Still don’t think we need it.”
If Randazzo isn’t suited to represent the city as attorney, Ciulla said the City Council must decide whether her position is needed.
This isn’t the first time the City Council has expressed strong opinions over private lawyers.
Last winter, several councilors became angry after learning the city paid a Boston law firm roughly $450,000 over seven years for work on a sexual harassment suit involving former city legal secretary Fulya Metin Campanelli and former city solicitor Maurice Lariviere.
Councilors voted to settle with Campanelli for $250,000 in January 2012.
“We don’t want to see another $450,000 fiasco,” said Ciulla last night. “We’re not going to sit here idly and let that happen to the taxpayers again.”
In response to the Campanelli case, the council passed a resolution in April 2012 requiring council approval of all legal bills from outside law firms. But last night, McQuillan told councilors that resolution only applies during instances of a conflict of interest “where a member of the legal department is precluded from representing the city.”
“There is no conflict of interest in this instance,” said McQuillan. “The ordinance does not apply.”
In addition to the city, Murphy, Hess, Toomey and Lehane will represent former Mayor William Manzi, who was indemnified in the case by the City Council before leaving office in 2011.
Lawsuits between the police chief and city stem from Solomon’s firing in 2008. The City Council also cut his $158,295 salary by $25,610 in 2007. Solomon returned as chief in 2010, after the state Civil Service Commission reduced his punishment to a one-year suspension. The city’s appeal of that decision was rejected by a judge in July.
The chief filed a federal suit in May 2011, accusing former Mayor Manzi and the city of “unconstitutional and retaliatory actions” for “illegally” firing him. The city has filed counterclaims against Solomon to recoup nearly $200,000 it repaid to the federal government. The city claims the chief did not fulfill contractual duties in overseeing federal grants.
City councilors indemnified Manzi in September 2011, granting him personal legal protection in the suit because he acted “within the scope of his official duties” as mayor when he fired Solomon. Manzi served as mayor from 2006 to 2011.