EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 6, 2013

Methuen rings up $5K legal bill with private firm

City saves more than $4K in first full month without solicitor salary on payroll

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — The city rang up a $5,315 legal bill in July.

Legal services were provided to Methuen by the municipal law firm Kopelman and Paige and cover the first full monthly billing cycle since the Boston-based outfit was hired by the City Council earlier this year.

Council Chairman Sean Fountain said the bill represents significant savings compared to the cost of employing a city solicitor. Former solicitor Peter McQuillan earned an annual salary of $113,114 — which breaks down to $9,400 a month and does not include health insurance, longevity pay or retirement benefits.

“It’s a huge monthly savings,” Fountain told The Eagle-Tribune. “If we can keep the bills to a minimum, obviously having a private law firm is a savings to the city.”

The city has been without a solicitor since June 1. In May, the council voted to hire Kopelman and Paige to assume the duties of the office. The $5,315 bill covers July 1 to July 30. The firm charges the city $175 per hour.

Before the July billing cycle began, Kopelman and Paige lawyer Mark Reich said the firm provided several thousand dollars worth of legal services for free “so that the city would not be charged for our learning curve” in Methuen.

“We try to be very fair when we come into a community,” Reich said. “We just determined it was the best interest of the city not to charge.”

Reich, who lives in North Andover, said he’s already met with Mayor Stephen Zanni and his staff, city department heads and city councilors. “So far I think it’s been a very pleasant relationship,” said Reich.

Other area clients of the firm include the cities of Newburyport and Amesbury and towns of Georgetown and Groveland.

Fountain credited the firm with “taking the politics out” of the city’s legal services.

“If you ask for a legal opinion, you get it in black and white,” said Fountain. “I think people have been pretty happy with the law firm. I’m very pleased with the services of Kopelman and Paige.”

The city is expected to use the firm at least until the end of the year.

The state’s “lame duck” law prevents the council from making appointments beyond Sept. 30, or within the final three months of their two-year term. There are no immediate plans to restart the solicitor hiring process.

An initial search for a new solicitor began in January, after councilors voted against reappointing McQuillan to a two-year term. McQuillan retained the job until June 30, the end of the fiscal year, despite working his last day May 31.

The process to hire McQuillan’s replacement stalled April 1 following a series of controversies and has yet to pick up again.

That night, a motion to appoint finalist Richard D’Agostino to a two-year term as solicitor was defeated 5 to 4.

Several attempts to restart the solicitor search in the months that followed proved unsuccessful.