METHUEN — Tension between the City Council and Mayor Neil Perry erupted into a shouting match this week just as the city kicked off an in-depth audit of the Police Department.
City Councilor Steve Saba, a member of the council's Public Safety Committee, on Monday night accused Perry of reneging on a promise to invite all members of the committee to the audit kick-off meeting, held Wednesday morning.
While the mayor did invite City Councilor Mike Simard, chairman of the committee, to the meeting, he also invited Police Chief Joe Solomon, a move criticized by several councilors.
Further muddying the waters, it was revealed Monday night that a member of the consulting team chosen to conduct the audit had to recuse himself because, Perry said, he "knew someone" in the Methuen Police Department.
Saba threatened Monday night to withdraw the $90,000 that was approved for the audit and then said Wednesday he would be calling for a special City Council meeting next Monday night to discuss and vote on whether to revoke the money for the audit.
"From the moment that the audit company was interviewed, the question was posed asking if they had any conflicts with the city of Methuen or the Methuen Police Department," Saba said in an email to Perry on Wednesday. "They each assured us that there were no conflicts and we gave support of your selection of CNA Corp. Now suddenly on the eve of the start of the audit we were informed of a conflict serious enough to result in a member of the audit team stepping away."
He added in his email that Perry's "decision to back away from (his) commitment made during the May 4 City Council meeting ... to allow the Public Safety Committee to participate in the 'kickoff meeting' and instead include the police chief raises significant concerns over the integrity of the audit."
Perry countered that he only promised to include the committee in the kickoff meeting, which is why he invited Simard.
"Saba is upset he didn't get invited to the kickoff meeting," Perry said. "Councilor Simard went to the meeting and it was perfect. ... Do I have to invite everybody on the committee? That's ridiculous."
He also said he's done "thousands of audits" over the years and it is always customary to invite the department head, which is why he invited Solomon.
When Saba raised these issues at Monday night's meeting, Perry raised his voice, nearly shouting as he said, "Don't ever question my integrity. Ever!"
Saba said he wasn't questioning the mayor's integrity but has "concerns with people you have in your office" not providing him with accurate information, among other problems.
"Maybe the council should pull the funding for the audit," Saba shouted back. "I'm getting concerned about what I'm hearing."
Perry responded, "Go ahead! Pull the $90,000 and do your 211. I'm tired of this council challenging my integrity."
A "211" is a provision of the city charter whereby the City Council can conduct an investigation of its own, complete with subpoena powers, of any department or city official.
Simard said Monday night he also felt it was inappropriate for Solomon to be in on the meeting.
"I'm concerned the chief's in the meeting," he said, adding that he was also worried that "one of the project auditors had to bow out because one of them had ties to Solomon. These are more problems, more concerns."
Perry confirmed someone on the audit team "knew someone" in the department, "not Solomon, but someone."
On Wednesday, Perry admitted he lost his cool during Monday night's meeting.
"It was wrong of me to lose my temper," he said. "But I won't have my integrity attacked by anyone. You cannot challenge my integrity."
Simard, changing his tone, said Wednesday afternoon that the kickoff meeting went smoothly and that Solomon was respectful and supportive of the audit.
He said he didn't think a special council meeting to rescind money for the audit was necessary.
"I think we can agree that the integrity of the audit won't be compromised," Simard said. "I am totally confident in Mayor Perry's ability to conduct a fair and impartial audit."