METHUEN — Top police officers will remain without contracts for at least two more months now that an arbitration hearing scheduled for Oct. 22 has been pushed to December.

The decision to delay was made by the arbitrator tasked with settling a year-long contract dispute between the city and the Methuen Police Superior Officers union, according to Paul Fahey, chief of staff to Mayor James Jajuga.

City officials say they cannot afford massive police pay approved by the previous mayor and City Council. The union's attorney, Gary Nolan, argues that the council at the time should have read and understood the contracts clearly.

Attorney Darren Klein, representing the city, and Nolan heard directly from the arbitrator this week that she feels needs three days, rather than a single day, to hear everyone's arguments, Fahey said. The next three-day block available is in December.

Until then, members of the superior officers union will continue to be paid in accordance with an old contract.

The contract in question, negotiated by the city under former mayor Stephen Zanni's administration, would have seen captains earn an average of $432,295 per year, according to the state inspector general. That does not include overtime and paid details.

The inspector general found that the City Council likely improperly invoked the "rule of necessity" when voting on the contract in September 2017. At that time, five councilors had conflicts of interest with the Police Department, leaving the council without a necessary quorum.

City Solicitor Richard D'Agostino recommended the council invoke the rule so that conflicted members could participate.

But, according to the inspector general, the councilors failed to disclose publicly who among them was conflicted and why, as required by law.

The current council decided last week to file a formal complaint with the state Ethics Commission in hopes that the vote approving the contract, taken among former councilors, will be invalidated.

Nolan harshly criticized the City Council for "having sat on its hands since last February," when the inspector general first suggested getting the Ethics Commission involved.

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