By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — Mayor Stephen Zanni has hired a private law firm to represent the city and former Mayor William Manzi in the federal lawsuit filed by police Chief Joseph Solomon.
With a court date at the end of the month and uncertainty surrounding filling the city solicitor’s job, Zanni said the Quincy-based law firm Murphy, Hess, Toomey and Lehane will represent Methuen in time for a scheduling conference Feb. 26 in Boston.
“It’s in the best interest of the city,” said Zanni. “I want to be prepared. I don’t want to put the city in jeopardy at all.”
Notices of appearance for lawyers James A. Toomey and Geoffrey P. Wermuth were filed in court last week. Toomey and Wermuth will represent both the city and Manzi, who was indemnified in the case by the City Council before leaving office in 2011.
Zanni’s decision could generate some criticism at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Zanni said he does not need council approval to hire a private firm and plans to discuss the matter at the meeting.
Last winter, several councilors became angry after learning the city paid a Boston law firm roughly $450,000 over seven years for work on a sexual harassment suit involving two former City Hall employees. Councilors later voted to settle the case for $250,000.
In response, the council passed a resolution in April 2012 requiring that they be notified of all legal bills from outside law firms. Several councilors last week also argued the resolution requires council approval before private lawyers are hired by the city.
Also last winter, Zanni hired Assistant Solicitor/Human Resources Director Anne Randazzo in part to limit the outsourcing of the city’s legal work. Randazzo makes $80,578 annually.
The city’s in-house legal team consists of Randazzo and City Solicitor Peter McQuillan, but councilors voted against reappointing McQuillan to a two-year term in January.
The search for McQuillan’s replacement is down to four finalists. Job interviews are scheduled for later this week.
While McQuillan will stay until his successor is named, Zanni has acknowledged that the uncertainty has made planning for the federal case with Solomon more difficult.
City officials, Solomon and their lawyers are slated to meet Feb. 26 for a scheduling conference with Judge Mark Wolf at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston. The conference was originally scheduled for Feb. 27.
The sides are expected to discuss the status of settlement negotiations between Zanni and Solomon, and to schedule deadlines for filing a motion of summary judgement — a procedural device used to dismiss all or parts of a case before it goes to trial.
Settlement negotiations between the mayor and chief began in April but have failed to produce an agreement.
Zanni extended his latest settlement offer to Solomon on Feb. 1 and described it as “fair and equitable for the city and himself.” Solomon responded with a counter offer on Friday.
“Hopefully (this) week we can sit down and hopefully we’ll be able to hammer this out,” said Solomon.
Solomon noted that settlement negotiations can continue beyond the Feb. 26 court date. And while Zanni previously stated his most recent settlement offer would be his “final proposal,” the mayor said last week he is willing to consider the chief’s counter offer.
“I’m going to look to his offer as well, of course, and see if that’s palatable,” said Zanni. “I can’t say anything until I see what he has to offer.”
Lawsuits between the police chief and city stem from Solomon’s firing in 2008. The City Council also cut his $158,295 salary by $25,610 in 2007. Solomon returned as chief in 2010, after the state Civil Service Commission reduced his punishment to a one-year suspension. The city’s appeal of that decision was rejected by a judge in July.
The chief filed a federal suit in May 2011, accusing former Mayor Manzi and the city of “unconstitutional and retaliatory actions” for “illegally” firing him. The city has filed counterclaims against Solomon to recoup nearly $200,000 it repaid to the federal government several years ago. The city claims the chief did not fulfill contractual duties in overseeing federal grants.
City councilors indemnified Manzi in September 2011, granting him personal legal protection in the suit because he acted “within the scope of his official duties” as mayor when he fired Solomon. Manzi served as mayor from 2006 to 2011.
Zanni said Toomey of the firm Murphy, Hess, Toomey and Lehane will be present for next week’s scheduling conference. If the case proceeds to trial, the mayor said he will assess the potential cost with city councilors.
“It will be very short money between now and (Feb. 26),” said Zanni. “If it goes to trial, I’ll have to discuss it further with the council.”
McQuillan too may appear on the city’s behalf.
When a reporter asked if he would be present, McQuillan said, “I’m still an attorney of record.”