By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — The three candidates for the West District City Council seats sparred last night over recent council decisions to hire a private law firm and to eliminate the health director.
They jousted in the first of a series of council and mayoral debates.
The candidates disagreed on whether a new city solicitor should be hired, with incumbent Sean Fountain arguing that the private firm representing the city is saving money, and whether the health director should have been cut, with challenger George Kazanjian saying Methuen needs a person in that position.
“In this situation, we have two front-line inspectors, we had an immediate supervisor, we had the health director overseeing the inspector and the nurse, and we have (Community Development Director) Bill Buckley,” said Kenneth Willette Jr., the third candidate for the two district seats who described himself as a fiscal conservative. “We had three layers of bureaucracy.”
Fountain, who supported eliminating former Health Director Brian LaGrasse’s position last summer, said a lot of positions in Methuen are redundant and the city budget is ripe for more cuts.
“We felt that position was not needed at the time, and the inspectors were doing their jobs,” he said.
Kazanjian said the health director, whose duties Buckley has taken on, plays a critical role in a city the size of Methuen and reducing the health staff puts senior citizens in jeopardy.
“We have the community development director serving as health director,” he said. “We should free up Mr. Buckley to do what he was hired to do, that being community development director. He can entice businesses to come here, broaden the tax base and reduce the burden on homeowners.”
The nurse’s hours also were cut, and the changes caused Methuen, Haverhill and Lawrence to lose a state grant.
Kazanjian said the city should hire a city solicitor, rather than keeping Koppelman & Paige, the private firm that has represented Methuen since this summer.
“In the long run, we don’t know what costs are going to be involved,” he said.
Fountain, who led an unsuccessful search for a city attorney earlier this year, said the outside firm can give neutral advice not tainted by local politics.
“I think it takes the gray areas and politics out of the office,” he said. “You can get an answer in black and white. So far since we instituted the private law firm, we have had cost savings. Cost savings is the way to go.”
Willette said the city needs an attorney on hand at City Council meetings and questioned why a assistant city solicitor, who also serves as director of human resources, was hired for the position without being able to step in as interim solicitor if needed.
“I don’t know why we would have an assistant city solicitor who is not qualified to serve as city solicitor,” he said.
All three candidates said the council should go through the city budget line by line and, Kazanjian said, “Rip it apart.’’
Willette repeated a pledge he has taken in the past to “vote against residential property (tax) increases, and I will vote against inflated budgets.”
Fountain said he proposed a number of cuts to the last two budgets that did not garner the support of a majority of his fellow councilors.
Both Willette and Fountain said routes 113 and 110 around the rotary at Interstate 93, which will be replaced in a project starting next year, should be rezoned for commercial and/or manufacturing development.
The debate was held last night at MCTV’s studio off North Lowell Street. It will air on MCTV starting Friday. MCTV will host debates for the East District and Central District candidates tonight that will air Friday. Debates for the at-large council and mayoral candidates will be held tomorrow starting at 6 p.m. and will air live, with repeats airing Monday and Tuesday.
The election will be Nov. 5.
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