By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — Police Chief Joseph Solomon says the city owes him $200,000 — a combination of back pay and interest the chief claims is coming to him regardless of the outcome of his federal lawsuit against the city or related settlement negotiations.
“At this point, I expect the city to pay the money they owe me, pay the legal fees they owe, and we can negotiate a settlement after that,” said Solomon. “They’ve basically lost their bargaining chips. They put themselves in this position.”
Several rounds of settlement talks between Solomon and Mayor Stephen Zanni have failed to produce an agreement. If no deal is reached in the coming weeks, the sides will proceed Feb. 27 with a scheduling conference in federal court.
The chief filed his federal suit in May 2011, accusing former Mayor William Manzi and the city of “unconstitutional and retaliatory actions” for “illegally” firing him in May 2008. 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 the decision was rejected by a judge in July.
When he returned to work, the city paid Solomon $199,000 in back pay as part of the Civil Service decision. But Solomon said the city never paid him interest on that award, which he said began accruing in 2007 when the City Council — led by then-Chairman Zanni — slashed Solomon’s $158,295 salary by $25,610. Today, the chief says that interest payment has grown to roughly $99,000.
Solomon filed an initial lawsuit against the city shortly after his pay was cut. A three-day trial was held in Lawrence Superior Court in December 2011, and judges have since awarded the chief $60,479 in back pay.
Solomon said he has yet to receive any of that money. He said interest on that award now totals $7,200.
In March, Solomon said a judge also ordered the city to honor the chief’s old contract or hold a hearing to affirm his pay cut. No such hearing has been held. Solomon said the difference between his previous and current salary plus benefits is roughly $31,500.
All together, the $31,500 salary and benefit gap, $60,479 in back pay and interest payments of $7,200 and $99,000 total $198,179.
Solomon said the city is using the money “as leverage for the federal case.” But the chief said he is owed the money regardless of the outcome of the suit. He also said the grand total increases by $900 every week he is not reimbursed.
Zanni and City Solicitor Peter McQuillan declined comment for this story.
“I don’t think now is the time to talk about what he thinks he’s owed,” said Zanni. “That’s something to be determined down the road.”
‘Reality is setting in’
Solomon said he may consider filing a request for a court order requiring the city to pay him, or seek a contempt of court charge.
“There’s options for us,” said Solomon. “I think I’ve been overly patient, considering this goes back to 2007.”
Solomon said he is also no longer willing to lump the $198,179 he believes he’s owed into future settlement talks, since the city has continued to pursue legal appeals on his cases over the last year.
Solomon described Zanni’s last settlement offer, which came in late October, as “too low, like not even in the ballpark.” Both sides have repeatedly refused to disclose the cost associated with the settlement offers.
Several city councilors also said they’ve yet to be briefed on the potential cost of settling with the chief.
“The mayor hasn’t told us,” said Councilor Sean Fountain. “We haven’t heard any dollar figures.”
In firing Solomon, Manzi claimed the chief verbally abused officers, misspent federal grant money and broke state law by using taxpayer money to buy marine equipment from his sister and brother-in-law.
Solomon’s federal lawsuit says Manzi fired him for “exercising protected activity under the First Amendment,” such as appealing a suspension, suing the city and participating in a federal investigation of Manzi.
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. The city wants Solomon to reimburse it for $195,795.85 it had to pay back to the federal government for misuse of antiterrorism and antidrug grants.
Settlement talks between Zanni and Solomon began in April. In July 2011, six months before Zanni took office, Solomon said his lawyers sent McQuillan a “global” settlement proposal that, if agreed upon, would have closed out all remaining lawsuits between the sides.
The settlement proposal was worked out between Solomon, Manzi and facilitator Michael Gagliardi, business manager for the Laborers International Union of North America Local 175, which represents public works and school information technology workers in Methuen.
Solomon said the deal “was pennies compared to what they owe me today.”
“I think now the reality is setting in,” said Solomon. “The federal trial is around the corner. I believe there might be some resolution that benefits everybody, that’s fair to me, fair to the city and fair to the taxpayers.”