METHUEN — The city’s monthly legal bill surpassed $13,000 in November and came in as the highest yet, renewing calls to search for an in-house city solicitor.
The November bill was about $13,547, according to city officials, and is the latest the city has received. The private firm Kopelman and Paige has billed the city for five months so far since it took over legal services for Methuen in July, totaling about $44,090.
Several councilors campaigned last fall to reopen a search for a city solicitor both as a convenience to city employees to get quick legal advice and as a potential cost savings.
“I campaigned on the idea of having a person in that position as city solicitor,” said Councilor George Kazanjian, who was elected to his first term in November. “I feel the same way now.”
Councilor Thomas Ciulla, who was the lone vote against hiring Kopelman and Paige last June, said Friday that he stood by that vote and still wants an in-house lawyer eventually, but said making a change now could be problematic given the threat of a lawsuit from former health director Brian LaGrasse hanging over the city.
“They’ve been dealing with this issue for the past several months since we decided to almost zero the position out,” Ciulla said. “It’s crazy if we change ships.”
The cost of having a private firm manage a lawsuit, however, could be “astronomical,” he said. “If a solicitor was there, they could work 40, 50, 60 hours a week and it’s at salary,” he said.
Councilor James Jajauga, also just elected to his first term, did not take a firm stand in an interview this week on whether he wanted to reopen the search, but suggested if a search were conducted, the city could contract with a solicitor rather than adding one to the payroll.
“First thing, if we hire a city solicitor, I would absolutely be opposed to putting that person on the city payroll so they would receive a pension,” he said. “I would want to do a contract that maybe required us to provide a 401(k).”
Secondly, Jajuga suggested allowing a solicitor to have his or her own practice along with the city job, or at least private clients. He believed that would attract more candidates for the position.
“There are so many attorneys applying for so many positions to get experience in government,” he said. “We have tons of young attorneys.”
The City Council last January voted 5-4 to not reappoint Peter McQuillan as solicitor. Three of the four who voted to reappoint, Chairman Jamie Atkinson, Councilor Joyce Campagnone and Councilor Ronald Marsan, are still on the council.
Three who voted against reappointment, councilors Ciulla, Sean Fountain and Lisa Ferry, are still on the council.
That vote launched a three-month search process many councilors considered flawed with an open meetings law violation and interference in the process by McQuillan himself. On April 1, the council voted against one of the two finalists and did not take a vote on the second, leaving the position in limbo. The council also voted to start new search, but one never happened.
McQuillan resigned in May, and the council in June voted 8-1 to hire Kopelman and Paige.
In 2012, his last full year on the job, McQuillan earned $112,574.53, according to city records. During the search last year, the city posted the solicitor position’s salary at between $87,390 and $113,144 per year, depending on experience.
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