By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — Family conflicts could prevent mayoral challenger Jennifer Kannan from negotiating contracts with four departments that represent a collective 60 percent of the city’s total operating budget.
That’s according to a letter Mayor Stephen Zanni sent Kannan yesterday. In the letter, Zanni requested “clarification and additional information” about a statement Kannan made earlier this month regarding state conflict of interest law.
Kannan’s son, daughter, brother and sister-in-law work for the city. In the Oct. 9 edition of The Eagle-Tribune, Kannan said that, if elected mayor, she has been informed by the state Ethics Commission that a member of her staff will be allowed to sit in on contract negotiations in her place with any employee group that Kannan has a family conflict with.
Kannan has served as a city councilor-at-large for six years. Her brother, Richard Aziz Jr., is a lieutenant with the Methuen Fire Department. Her son, Billy Kannan Jr., joined the police department as a full-time patrolman in 2012 after serving for several years as a reserve officer. Kannan’s daughter, Brittney Kannan, is a teacher’s aide at Marsh Grammar School. Kannan’s sister-in-law, Maria Becotte, works as a teacher at the Marsh.
In his letter, Zanni wrote that the police, fire and school departments “represent approximately 60 percent of the total budget or more than $86 million of our $145 million budget.”
Zanni wrote that the city depends on the mayor “to ensure contract negotiations are approached with respect for both employees and taxpayers alike.”
“That you are proposing an unprecedented move to give this responsibility to an unelected individual raises serious questions about your ability to perform the duties of the office of the mayor,” wrote Zanni. “Given your abdication of responsibility in negotiating these contracts, the residents of our city deserve to know who they can expect to perform this critically important duty affecting $86 million dollars of their taxpayer money.”
In the letter, Zanni asked Kannan to identify who will negotiate contracts in her place if she is elected mayor. Zanni also called on Kannan to provide a copy of the state Ethics Commission ruling “detailing what duties you may or may not be able to participate in given your conflicts of interest with the Police, Fire and School departments.”
Kannan told The Eagle-Tribune yesterday that she will not respond to Zanni’s letter.
“I don’t answer to Steve Zanni,” said Kannan.
Kannan said Zanni is “trying to distort a spotless record” and that she has closely abided by all ethics and conflict of interest guidelines since becoming a city councilor.
“The only one that seems to be concerned is Steve Zanni,” said Kannan. “Nothing has changed. ... I have never shown favoritism, nor will I. He’s trying to muddy the waters.”
Kannan said she never received a written ruling from the Ethics Commission, but that she did speak with a commission staff member over the phone earlier this year.
As a councilor, Kannan has recused herself from discussions and votes involving departments in which her family works. Kannan said she was told by the Ethics Commission to continue that practice. In the event a conflict arises while she is mayor, Kannan said the Ethics Commission told her there are further ethics and conflict of interest guidelines to adhere to.
“I have never, ever in my six years as a councilor put myself or the city in any type of risk with conflict of interest,” said Kannan. “Whatever the guidelines of the law require me to do, Jennifer Kannan will do it.”
If state law requires her to delegate contract negotiations to a staff member, Kannan said yesterday that she will be willing to do so. But Kannan did not provide specifics when asked who that staff member will be.
“If I’m elected it will be someone from my staff,” said Kannan. “I don’t have a staff yet because the people haven’t elected me yet.”
Kannan also fired back at Zanni, claiming he had difficulty negotiating contracts last year with the police and fire departments. Specifically, Kannan said Zanni called in Methuen Community Development Director William Buckley for assistance after Zanni “struggled” with the firefighters contract.
“I don’t think Steve Zanni should be putting himself up on a pedestal,” said Kannan. “He struggled with both police and fire.”
Zanni said yesterday that Buckley had no involvement with union contract negotiations.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” said Zanni.
“Every union contract was negotiated in the mayor’s office and I was never present for those meetings,” said Buckley. “I have no responsibility in negotiating contracts.”
DEBATE NIGHT Who: Candidates for mayor and councilor-at-large Where: Merrimack Valley Golf Course, 210 Howe St. When: Tonight. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.