By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — Mayor Stephen Zanni believes Jennifer Kannan and other city councilors “hurt the city” when they voted to drastically cut funding for the municipal Health Division.
Zanni and Kannan will face off in the Nov. 5 mayoral election. Kannan was one of five councilors who voted June 25 to cut former Methuen health director Brian LaGrasse’s $73,149 salary to $1, effectively eliminating the position.
LaGrasse has since hired a lawyer and is considering filing suit against the city for defamation, wages and wrongful discharge. The majority of city councilors are now remaining tight-lipped about the matter.
Councilors also voted unanimously in June to reduce public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, which saved $25,000. As a result of the cuts, state public health officials in August pulled the plug on the $325,000 regional grant serving Methuen, Haverhill and Lawrence. The loss of the grant cost the cities $214,000.
In a recent interview with The Eagle-Tribune, Zanni said the council was wrong to cut funding for both positions.
“I fought to keep the public health director and nurse,” said Zanni. “My opponent voted to terminate one and reduce the hours of the other. It wasn’t a good move. It really hurt the city.”
Zanni said the state’s decision to pull back the grant ended a project that ultimately could have led to the regionalization of area health departments. It may also hurt the city’s ability to land future grants, he said.
“Besides losing the (health director) position, now we lost the grant,” said Zanni. “I think that hurt us as well.”
Kannan said she stands by her votes to cut Health Division funding, but deferred comment to the city attorney when a reporter asked about LaGrasse’s potential lawsuit and demand for $145,000 in damages.
“I’d be more comfortable just letting the two attorneys discuss it,” said Kannan.
Kannan criticized Zanni for changing positions on the Health Division cuts.
In July, Zanni said he would transfer money in the budget in an effort to temporarily restore funding for the health director and nurse positions. But by August, Zanni said the Health Division will have to operate without the funding.
“I really think he owes the city of Methuen an explanation of why he had a change of heart,” said Kannan.
In response, Zanni said his requests to keep the positions funded fell “on deaf ears.” Zanni said any move he made to restore the positions would still have required funding from the City Council.
“I think the health director is needed in our city,” said Zanni.
LaGrasse’s lawyer, Elise Hoffman, has sent the city a $145,000 demand letter. The letter alleges that LaGrasse was wrongfully discharged by the city and defamed by Council Chairman Sean Fountain in the Sept. 1 Sunday Eagle-Tribune.
Hoffman also filed a wage complaint with the state attorney general Sept. 23, two months after the city was late in paying LaGrasse roughly $14,500 in wages and benefits following his July 1 layoff.
Hoffman has said the wage complaint represents a first step toward a potential lawsuit against the city and Fountain.
In response, a lawyer representing the city last week called on the attorney general to throw out the complaint.
Several councilors interviewed recently declined to comment on LaGrasse’s demand letter and wage complaint — including Fountain, Ron Marsan, Lisa Ferry and Jamie Atkinson.
“I’m no lawyer,” said Ferry. “I’m going to leave it to our legal representation to work that out.”
“I have no comment,” said Atkinson. “That’s going to be dealt with through our attorney.”
Councilor Joyce Campagnone, who voted against the health director cut, said she’s never received a complaint about LaGrasse and isn’t aware of any documentation or evidence that he did anything wrong while on the job.
“If there is documentation that something was done wrong, then I think everyone should be brought up to speed on it,” said Campagnone. “If we’re going to stick our necks out and put the city out there, we need (documentation) to back up the action.”