By Bill Kirk
---- — METHUEN — The City Council last night unanimously voted to take $100,001 from the city’s free cash account to pay a federal court judgment in favor of Police Chief Joseph Solomon.
The vote came after a brief discussion between members of the council, Mayor Stephen Zanni, City Solicitor Peter McQuillan and City Auditor Thomas Kelly.
“I’m pleased with the outcome,” Zanni said after the meeting. “I’m hoping we can move forward and the city can move forward.”
Council President Sean Fountain agreed.
“We want to put this behind us,” he said. “It’s best for taxpayers and the city to move forward.”
Councilor Jennifer Kannan added, “I think it’s fair.”
Last night’s vote resolves one part of a puzzle of lawsuits between Solomon and the city stemming from the chief’s firing in 2008. The chief filed a federal suit in May 2011, accusing former Mayor William Manzi and the city of “unconstitutional and retaliatory actions” for “illegally” firing him.
The most recent step toward an agreement came on March 7 when the city submitted an “offer of judgment” to Solomon in which the city “allows judgment to be taken against them” in the amount of $100,001 plus legal costs. Solomon agreed to the proposal Monday.
During a brief discussion on how to pay for the judgment, Kelly noted that the council had three choices: Take the money from $800,000 in free cash, an account of surplus funds left over at the end of each fiscal year for one-time expenses; use money from the $1.1 million stabilization fund; or, take it from the tax rate.
Councilors were not willing to take the money directly from taxes, and Kelly advised that the stabilization fund remain untouched so it could be used to help pay the debt on the high school project as well as any cost overruns the project might experience.
Fountain then asked what the timeframe was for a vote on the payment.
“The payment should be made next week,” McQuillan said. “Do it this evening.”
The council then voted unanimously to pay the $100,001 out of free cash.
Still outstanding, however, is the question of legal fees.
City Councilor Ron Marsan last night wanted to know how much those legal fees totaled.
McQuillan said he wasn’t sure. “I cannot tell you what the attorneys’ fees will be,” he said, but noted that the city only had about 8 billable hours on the case.
Based on that, he said, Solmon’s attorneys’ fees would probably be low. “I’d suggest the attorneys’ fees are going to be modest,” he said.
He added that the city will have the ability to appeal any charges that are unreasonable or unwarranted.
He estimated the city would know the actual legal fees in two to three weeks.
City Councilor Michael Condon was skeptical that last night’s vote would end the turmoil.
He said taxpayers think the legal matters between the city and Solomon are over, but “it’s really not. A portion has been settled. How many more portions do we have to go? Everybody thinks it’s over, but we know it’s not all settled.”
Zanni said that there is one more settlement to go out of the three he inherited when he became mayor.
Still pending between Solomon and the city is a civil case in which the chief was awarded back pay. The City Council had cut his $158,295 salary by $25,610 in 2007. A judge awarded him back pay, which was well into six-figures, but the city appealed the decision.
Zanni said he thought that case would be settled in the “next couple of weeks.”
The other case that has been settled was with the Civil Service Commission, which reduced Solmon’s firing to a one-year suspension. The city’s appeal of that decision was rejected by a judge in July.