By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — A contract between Methuen and the private law firm hired in place of a solicitor contains several apparent safeguards for the city, including a requirement that the city be notified if monthly legal bills exceed $8,000.
If a monthly bill exceeds that amount, city officials will have the option to “cease activities for the month.” The contract also states that the city has the right to “hire differing counsel at its own discretion at any time.”
Mayor Stephen Zanni said he drew up the agreement earlier this month with a representative from the Boston-based municipal law firm Kopelman and Paige. The City Council is expected to edit the contract before voting to approve it.
“It gives a safeguard for the city and a safeguard for the taxpayer,” Zanni told councilors on Wednesday. “It’s very important we have some structure there.”
Councilors voted in late May to hire Kopelman and Paige. The firm was brought on to provide legal services in the absence of a city solicitor, but Zanni said he would not transfer the funds needed to pay them until a written contract was reached.
On Thursday, Council Chairman Sean Fountain downplayed the importance of the document, describing it as “a simple fee agreement” and not a contract. Fountain also said Kopelman and Paige is already working for the city.
Fountain said the council will likely vote on the contract or agreement after councilors suggest a number of changes. On Wednesday, Councilor Jennifer Kannan said she has some concerns over the language in the document.
“I have a problem with (the mayor) stepping over into the council’s business,” said Kannan, who intends to run against Zanni in the mayoral election this fall. “He’s not going to micromanage the council.”
The contract submitted to the council charges the firm with “performing all responsibilities of city solicitor ... and other legally necessary and responsible activities related to same only as assigned by the city.”
The contract identifies Mark Reich and Lauren Goldberg as lead attorneys and points of contact for the city. Methuen will be charged for services in “one-tenth of an hour increments” at a flat rate of $175 per hour.
Firm members will attend regular council meetings for $200 per meeting. The firm has agreed to notify the mayor’s office before performing legal services at the request of a department head, and all disbursements by the firm over $500 will require prior city approval. The firm will also provide the city with itemized invoices at least every month.
The contract does not call for a retainer or advance payment to the firm. The city will pay Kopelman and Paige monthly.
Methuen has been without a city solicitor since Peter McQuillan left May 31. Zanni has said Assistant City Solicitor Anne Randazzo has been “holding down the fort.”
McQuillan’s departure ended a contentious five-plus months that began Jan. 7 when the City Council voted against reappointing him to a new two-year term.
McQuillan retained his job as the council unsuccessfully worked to find a replacement. After the search stalled, councilors voted to hire Kopelman and Paige to assume the duties of solicitor.