By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — The City Council decided last night to start its second hunt in the last year for a permanent city solicitor, nearly 11 months after rejecting both finalists from the last search.
By a vote of 6-3, the council voted to find a successor to Peter McQuillan, whom the council refused to reappoint in January 2013 and who resigned as of May 30, 2013, amid a failed search process that yielded no solicitor and led to the hiring of Boston law firm Kopelman and Paige.
Those in favor said while they were pleased with Kopelman and Paige’s service since it started in July, the firm, which bills by the hour, will cost more than having an in-house solicitor on salary.
“I think we’ve lost control of the spending,” said Councilor Ron Marsan.
Methuen has paid nearly $55,000 to Kopelman and Paige through December, and Councilor George Kazanjian said January’s bill is estimated to be more than $14,000.
McQuillan earned about $114,000 per year when the council voted not to reappoint him.
Councilors Lisa Yarid Ferry, Sean Fountain and James Jajuga voted against hiring an individual, saying that adding in costs of benefits and the occasional hiring of outside legal help in certain cases made the firm a better bargain.
“They have 50 attorneys on staff to cover every aspect of the law,” Fountain said.
He pointed to outside legal spending in several recent lawsuits, including about $475,000 over five years in the lawsuit between a former City Hall employee and former City Solicitor Maurice Lariviere. That suit was settled in 2012 for $250,000.
“The additional outside costs, when you factor that in, Kopelman and Paige isn’t costing us too much money,” Jajuga said.
Kazanjian said that specialized legal counsel will cost the city money either way, whether a city solicitor hires a firm or whether Kopelman and Paige uses one of its specialized attorneys and adds that time onto the bill.
“If you have a labor issue, (Kopelman and Paige has) one and that person handles it, but we’re still being charged,” Kazanjian said.
The city has a potential lawsuit on the horizon, with former health director Brian LaGrasse considering suing after his salary was basically removed from this year’s budget. His attorney has submitted a letter with demands to the city, which has yet to respond.
According to a list of criteria approved last night, the search committee will consist of three councilors chosen by Chairman Jamie Atkinson. The search committee will draw up a calendar listing all meeting dates, locations and times in advance.
All meetings will be recorded, including closed executive sessions, and minutes will be taken.
Applications will be accepted for four weeks and will not be opened until after the deadline has passed.
The position will be advertised locally in The Eagle-Tribune, in The Boston Globe and in legal publications such as Lawyers Weekly.
Human resources will create a job description, including minimum requirements, will report to the committee which applicants do and do not meet the minimum requirements, and will submit a master list of applicants to the committee.
All candidates will be confidential until they are designated as finalists, at which time their names will be released.
Last year’s search began in January when the council voted not to reappoint McQuillan as solicitor. McQuillan retained his job as Methuen’s top lawyer as the council looked for a replacement, but the search was hampered by numerous problems, including a meeting held at attorney Arthur Broadhurst’s office in violation of the state Open Meeting Law. Between six and eight solicitor candidates were interviewed at the secret meeting.
Four finalists emerged from a small pool of qualified candidates, but half of them backed out days after their names were made public. The committee at first intended to interview those four behind closed doors, but reversed course when its members learned state law prohibits officials from interviewing finalists in closed sessions.
The council voted in April against appointing one of the two remaining finalists and did not vote on the other.
McQuillan resigned after revelations emerged that he interfered with the search process, including contacting one of the finalists during the finalist’s interview before the City Council and contacting at least one of that candidate’s references. The reference withdrew his recommendation days after McQuillan’s contact.
Kopelman and Paige took over on an interim basis in July. The council voted to restart the search process, but never did.
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