EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 8, 2013

Methuen health director fires back

LaGrasse says Fountain has 'bad information' about regional grant

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — With a lawyer by his side, former health director Brian LaGrasse said he was the victim of a political attack that cost him his job and the cities of Methuen, Lawrence and Haverhill a $325,000 state grant.

LaGrasse said he hired a lawyer last week after City Council Chairman Sean Fountain told The Eagle-Tribune there were a number of questions surrounding the regional grant in which LaGrasse served as administrator.

LaGrasse said Fountain’s suggestion that there were improprieties with the grant are “clearly baseless.”

“It’s wrong,” said LaGrasse. “He’s got bad information.”

The Methuen City Council voted in June to cut LaGrasse’s $73,149 salary to $1, effectively eliminating the position of health director. As a result, state public health officials in August pulled the plug on the $325,000 regional grant.

LaGrasse had served as administrator for the four-year grant, which was awarded in 2012 to help financially strapped health departments in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill pay for a full-time public health nurse and part-time environmental health inspector. The decision to cease grant funding after this year means the three cities will lose out on $214,000.

LaGrasse told The Eagle-Tribune that his position was eliminated over politics, not for personal reasons. But he would not elaborate on what he believes motivated city councilors to reduce his salary to $1.

“It definitely wasn’t personal,” said LaGrasse. “It was political.”

Lagrasse said he hired lawyer Elise Hoffman of Andover two days after Fountain’s comments were published in last Sunday’s Eagle-Tribune. Though her client is “not anywhere close to filing suit at this point,” Hoffman said she is exploring whether LaGrasse was wrongfully discharged from his job and whether his employment contract was breached.

Hoffman said Fountain’s recent comments about LaGrasse and the grant are also “cause for concern.”

Fountain told The Eagle-Tribune that he stands behind the council’s vote to eliminate the health director position, and that a majority of councilors felt LaGrasse’s job wasn’t needed, given that the two larger cities of Lawrence and Haverhill both operate without a health director. “It was never a personal thing,” said Fountain. “It was never a job performance thing.”

The council also reduced public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, which saved $25,000.

Before the cuts were made, Fountain said councilors had heard about potential problems with how the grant was being administered, specifically with how LaGrasse and Ewing were splitting up their work time between the grant and their regular responsibilities within the city’s Health Division. Efforts to investigate were “hampered” by the city, Fountain said.

Both Zanni and Methuen Community Development Director William Buckley, who oversees the city’s Health Division, have said they have no knowledge about improprieties with the grant.

The state Department of Public Health (DPH) has yet to release any documents related to the regional health grant or the Methuen budget cuts, which The Eagle-Tribune requested under a Freedom of Information Request on July 26.

Among the documents DPH won’t make public is a copy of the grant itself. The information request “is still with the legal department,” according to an email sent Thursday by DPH Spokeswoman Anne Roach.

In a written statement, Hoffman wrote that LaGrasse “went above and beyond his regular day-to-day duties” when he applied for the grant and that the state eliminated the award because the council cut the health director position, not because of anything LaGrasse did. Hoffman wrote that there were “absolutely no issues with the way this grant was being managed or run prior to the budget cuts.”

All money associated with the grant has been accounted for by the state and city auditor’s office, Hoffman wrote.

“Mr. LaGrasse performed all of his public health director duties, as well as the administration of the grant, which was very much a part of his job,” wrote Hoffman. “Had it not been rescinded due to the loss of Mr. LaGrasse as public health director, these valuable funds would have certainly served the public interest of the people of Methuen very well.

Fountain also told The Eagle-Tribune that, before the cuts were made, councilors and city employees would call the Health Division office looking for LaGrasse, only to be told he and Ewing were tied up in a grant meeting or working outside of the city.

LaGrasse told The Eagle-Tribune that the grant did require meetings in Lawrence and Haverhill. But LaGrasse said Fountain had his cell phone number. “Whenever he called me I answered my phone,” said LaGrasse.

“Of course I was busy with the grant,” said LaGrasse. “It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. And I wasn’t out of the office all the time. I did all of my office work.”

Fountain could not be reached for comment for this story.

LaGrasse filed a grievance as a result of losing his job. It was denied by Mayor Stephen Zanni.

“The reason given was that reducing the level of services is a core management right,” wrote Hoffman in her statement. Hoffman wrote that she disagrees with that reasoning because the city’s municipal code requires that Methuen has a public health director.

“Under these circumstances, eliminating the position does not appear to be an option and, for obvious reasons, neither is paying (LaGrasse) $1 per year,” wrote Hoffman. “The fact is that the city of Methuen now does not have a public health director as required by its own law.”

In the statement, LaGrasse also suggests that Fountain’s comments are hurting his effort to land a new job.

“I was blown away by the latest article in Sunday’s paper and City Council Chairman Sean Fountains’ comments,” said LaGrasse in the statement. “I am actively seeking new employment applying for jobs and I feel that the unfounded accusations by Councilor Fountain have hurt me in this endeavor.”