METHUEN — City officials are reeling from recent revelations that police union officials and the chief himself may have tinkered with union contracts without full oversight of the city's official bargaining committee, leading to lavish raises that are threatening to bankrupt the city.
City councilors and others say someone should be held responsible.
"I'd be sad if it was willful or on purpose," said Councilor-at-large Jessica Finocchiaro. "But If anyone purposely defrauded the city, it's up to this council to hold them accountable."
"If they did (defraud taxpayers) they should pay in a criminal court," said West District City Councilor Mike Simard.
East District Councilor Steven Saba said the council may have to take the matter into its own hands.
"We as a council have to do something," he said, adding that if Mayor Neil Perry doesn't come to the council next week with a proposal for a full, in-depth audit of the Police Department, as he has promised, he will ask the council to take action.
"I'd put before the council a 2-11 investigation," Saba said, noting that under the City Charter's Chapter 2, Section 11, the council has the power to "authorize investigations and subpoena people. If the council does it, do we go out on our own, tell the mayor to work with us, or do we work on an audit together?"
Saba, who sits on the council's public safety subcommittee, said he hasn't yet received a request for funding for an audit from Perry.
Perry said in an interview recently that he would be sending a request for proposals for the audit to the committee for review. It would be a review similar to those done recently in Dracut and Salem, New Hampshire, he said.
"I am going to work with Councilor Simard," he said. "This is not a witch hunt. If we do this right, it's part of restoring trust in the citizenry in public services. We owe transparency to the citizens of Methuen."
Simard made the request for a city audit in January, confirming recently that it would likely cost "in the six figures."
Perry did not return a phone call Tuesday to explain the delay in getting the funding request to the Public Safety Committee.
The audit would be one of many investigations into the department since revelations of sky-high police contracts came to light in early 2018.
Former Mayor James Jajuga sounded the alarm in the spring of 2018, noting that superior officers' salaries, negotiated in the late summer of 2017, had gone up from $160,000 to more than $400,000 under language inserted into the contract and approved by former Mayor Stephen Zanni and the City Council.
Gary Nolan, the attorney for the superior officers union at the time, said he was surprised the council approved the contract.
"Frankly, I suspected that the council would reject the contract once they read" it, he said. "Apparently they never read it."
He noted that former city Auditor Tom Kelly advised the council not to approve the contract, but they did anyway. Five of the nine city councilors voting on the contract had relatives working in the department or some other kind of family connection to the police.
"The union added that language (bumping up their pay) and reviewed it with Mayor Zanni, who eventually signed the agreement," Nolan said.
City Solicitor Richard D'Agostino confirmed recently that neither he nor Human Resources Director Anne Randazzo saw any changes made to the superior officers' union contract before it was ratified by the council in mid-September 2018.
"Negotiations ended Aug. 29," D'Agostino said. "It was signed Aug. 31. I'm not copied on any of those (later) emails. I never had any discussions after that. There was no further communication with me or Anne after the end of physical negotiations. We had no idea they were having discussions after the fact."
According to emails reviewed by The Eagle-Tribune and the council, the superior officers' union, working with Nolan, continued making changes to the final document in the weeks after it was signed.
Another email, from Chief Joseph Solomon, shows how he suggested changes to the patrolmen's union contract. The patrolmen's contract is the baseline for the superior officers' contract as well as the chief's. The higher their salaries go, the more the chief and superior officers get paid.
The union, meanwhile, isn't taking the latest dust-up sitting down.
The New England Benevolent Police Association, which represents union police officers in Massachusetts, has filed a public records request through Methuen's website seeking information about the texting habits of City Council Chairman James McCarty and Saba.
In their request, dated Feb. 4, the union seeks "all electronic data" sent or received between Saba and McCarty during or after the council's Jan. 21, 2020 open meeting. The request is for text messages, word processing documents, spread sheets, voicemail, email and more.
Saba said the union is trying to "intimidate us."
It is the fourth time the union has sought electronic documents from Saba and other city officials.
"As with the previous three, the answer was, there is nothing at all on my phone," he said. "I'm not that stupid to get into a conversation during a meeting."
He said he is refusing to respond to the public records request "unless someone shows me the law that mandates I provide someone with texts from my private email."
He said the union is on a fishing expedition.
"They are trying to find out if myself and McCarty are working together during the meeting, or if someone's feeding us information and telling us what to say," he said. "Nobody has to tell me what to say."