EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 17, 2013

Solicitor search delayed

'Lame duck' law prevents appointment

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — It’s looking more like the city will close out 2013 without a solicitor.

The state’s “lame duck” law prevents city councilors from making appointments beyond Sept. 30, or within the final three months of their two-year term. As a result, with no immediate plan in place to restart the solicitor search that stalled this spring, the task of hiring Methuen’s top lawyer will likely be handed over to the new council taking office in January.

The city has been without a solicitor since June 1. In May, the City Council voted to hire private municipal law firm Kopelman and Paige to assume the duties of the office.

The search for a new solicitor began in January, after councilors voted against reappointing Peter McQuillan to a two-year term. McQuillan retained the job until June 30, the end of the fiscal year, despite working his last day May 31.

The process to hire McQuillan’s replacement stalled April 1 following a series of controversies and has yet to pick up again. That night, a motion to appoint finalist Richard D’Agostino to a two-year term as solicitor was defeated 5 to 4.

Several attempts to restart the solicitor search in recent months have proven unsuccessful.

On June 6, councilors Jamie Atkinson and Ron Marsan put forth a resolution to restart the hiring process by forming a new search committee and establishing specific “search guidelines and parameters” as well as a detailed step-by-step timeline.

That resolution was defeated 6-3, with only Atkinson, Marsan and Jeanne Pappalardo voting to restart the search.

What followed was a series of contradictory moves by Councilor Joyce Campagnone.

In July, Campagnone proposed a request to reconsider the June 6 vote against reopening the hiring process. But she abruptly scrapped her plan just one minute into a public meeting by removing her proposal from the agenda.

After reconsidering her motion to reconsider, Campagnone told council Chairman Sean Fountain that she still supported reopening the solicitor search. After the meeting, Campagnone told a reporter she wanted a “fresh start” and planned to resubmit a resolution at the council’s August meeting seeking the reformation of a solicitor search committee.

But no such resolution was put forth. Instead, at the council’s Aug. 5 meeting, Campagnone simply restated her desire to fill the solicitor position while also referencing the “lame duck” law.

“I know some people feel like we’re lame ducks here because of the election year and I understand that,” said Campagnone. “But I just feel bad that we have an empty slot and I would have liked to see that position filled before the election, so that when the new people get elected, or the old return, that position would already be filled.”

Campagnone asked councilors for feedback on the issue but did not receive any at the meeting.

“I was just hoping we could get that position filled before the election so that it wouldn’t be a political football,” said Campagnone. “It’s just something I feel is necessary and very important.”

Campagnone’s comments drew confusion from at least two councilors contacted this week.

“I don’t know what she’s thinking,” said Atkinson. “Why didn’t she just vote ‘yes’ in June or leave it in the agenda in July? Now it’s the end of August and we don’t have enough time (to restart the solicitor search).”

“I don’t know what to make of it,” added Marsan. “I just wish she had the same understanding in June.”

Marsan said he accepts the council’s June decision not to reopen the search.

“Do I like it? No. My feelings are the same,” said Marsan. “I would like to see a person daily at City Hall. We need a solicitor.”

Fountain is among the proponents of keeping Kopelman and Paige onboard for the time being. Fountain said the initial plan was to hire the firm, assess how they operate and see if the city can save money rather than hire a full-time solicitor.

“It was an 8-to-1 vote to put in Kopelman and Paige,” said Fountain. “I think they’re doing a great job. From what I’ve seen so far, there’s a cost savings there.”