EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 10, 2014

Laid-off health director triples his demands

By Douglas Moser

---- — METHUEN — The former city health director tripled his demand for damages and added new claims in a letter to the city late last month.

Brian LaGrasse, who was laid off after the City Council all but eliminated funding for his position in June, hiked his demand from $145,000 in September to about $400,000 in a Dec. 27 letter to the city that added a claim of violated due process to the list of complaints.

“Due process is in the city charter. The charter was not followed,” said Elise Hoffman, an Andover attorney representing LaGrasse.

Several councilors reached yesterday could not comment on the letter, the monetary demand or potential litigation.

The makeup of the council shifted after the election, with two councilors who voted to reduce the funding and one councilor who voted against now off the board. Three who voted for eliminating the position – councilors Sean Fountain, Thomas Ciulla and Ronald Marsan –remain, as do three – councilors Jamie Atkinson, Joyce Campagnone and Lisa Ferry – who voted no.

Councilor James Jajuga, who won election to his first term in November, said he believes the city needs a health director, and said he was “disillusioned” after the city lost a grant as a result of laying off the health director.

“I would like to either rehire this individual or hire someone and reapply for the grant,” he said. “I’ve spoken to some of the (state) legislators that I’d like them to be helpful to us if this becomes a reality.”

State health officials decided to end a regional grant shared by Methuen, Haverhill and Lawrence after the Methuen council eliminated funding for the health director, who administered the grant.

A four-year, $325,000 grant created a Merrimack Valley Health District in 2012 and was designed to give a boost to financially strapped local health departments by paying for a full-time public health nurse and part-time environmental health inspector. Only five such grants were awarded statewide.

Cancellation of the grant meant the three cities lost out on $214,000 collectively. The nurse was laid off in August.

Ciulla yesterday said the Health Department is more efficient than before, and he wanted the inspectors to focus more on code enforcement.

“There was too much duplication in the department,” he said. “I want to see boots on the ground, not behind a computer. I was health code inspector in Everett.”

He said that he believed some of his colleagues did want to reinstate the director position.

Hoffman said she had been discussing LaGrasse’s claims with Darren Klein, a staff attorney with the private firm, Kopelman and Paige, that represents the city, and thought any further action should wait until the council reformed after November’s election.

“The thought was we needed to wait for the new city council to be installed so maybe there’s some resolution and perhaps there would be an offer,” Hoffman said.

The City Council plans to meet in a special executive session in Mayor Stephen Zanni’s office on Thursday to discuss litigation. Its next meeting is Monday, Jan. 21.

Hoffman told The Eagle-Tribune in November that LaGrasse would sue the city for damages if he did not get his job back or a settlement for damages. The initial $145,000 demand was made in late September and alleged that LaGrasse was wrongfully discharged by the city and defamed by Fountain, then city council chairman, in the Sept. 1, 2013, edition of The Sunday Eagle-Tribune.

Fountain said all his efforts to investigate how LaGrasse’s and Ewing’s work hours were spent were “hampered” by city officials. Fountain said he was told his request to examine their payroll records would cost $2,500.

The City Council voted June 25 to cut LaGrasse’s salary from $73,149 to $1, and to reduce public Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, which saved $25,000. In response, state public health officials in August pulled the plug on the $325,000 regional health grant.

Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.