The City of Methuen is in a serious crisis. Not just a funding crisis but a management crisis, a leadership crisis and most frightening a structural crisis as a municipality.First, we had the previous city council which was so corrupt and incompetent that it will take a decade or more to rectify the financial and political damage done to the town’s operations.
We had a council president voting to create his own job and his own salary in the police department that he then was appointed to, but only after the council jumped through hoops to get the state legislature to pass a home rule petition so that they could override the city charter to give him the job.
We had a police superior officers contract that was voted on by councilors who claim they didn’t know what was in it, a contract that stacked salaries of officers to the point where some were scheduled to get upwards of $400K.
The current mayor, who was then a city councilor, voted on this contract even though his son (who is innocent in all this best we can tell) was a superior officer at the time. The Mayor’s excuse for voting on his son’s contract was that there is a loophole in the law that allowed him to vote on it. But, he didn’t have to. Without his vote the contract would have passed 8-0 anyway. Yet, instead of taking the high road he voted on his son’s contract anyway.
Not as widely reported is the fact that his son was appointed from lieutenant to captain shortly before that contract was voted on.
Then we have city accountant Tom Kelley.
Kelley says he told two city councilors what was in the police contracts and that it was a bad contract but refused to say which two councilors he told.
That means he sat at a public city council meeting when the vote on that contract was discussed and voted on, and never said a word to his bosses, the Methuen taxpayers. He never said a word to the full city council before their vote. Yet, he was allowed to retire with full benefits on his way out the door, without being forced to say which councilors he privately told, and without being forced to reveal who else knew or why he purposely allowed the council to be lied to about what was really in the contract.
We also have heard almost every elected official and department head say that the budget numbers they have are “wrong”. The Police Chief said it. Members of the city council said it. The Mayor has said it. And even the city solicitor has said it. Everyone has complained during this budget crisis that they have budget numbers but those budget numbers are inaccurate.
At one point Councilor McCarty asked how the council could even discuss some of these budget issues when nobody seems to have the real numbers. In fact, The head of the Methuen Police Superior Officers Union stated at last week’s meeting that the numbers released to the newspaper about how much money Methuen cops are making and that the cops have been given a black eye because the public has a misperception about how much they make.
Yet Mr. Kelly was allowed to retire with a platinum parachute on his way out the door leaving the rest of Methuen officials still trying to find out what the right budget numbers are and how to move forward.
Then we learned that the city contracted with a trash company even though they were not the lowest bidder, the owners or principals of which gave money to the mayor’s campaign.
Mayor Jajuga, without a vote of the city council, negotiated what city councilors say is an “illegal contract” with the superior officers (keep in mind his son is a captain now) at a lower rate of pay under a “memorandum of understanding”. He also sat in on council meetings where his son’s contract was discussed. Not to mention tasking his “longtime friend” and aide in his office to negotiate said contract to give the appearance that he was recusing himself from the matter because of conflicts of interest.
SCHOOL FUNDING SCHEMES
Then we have the school department, which was in the red last year and had to be bailed out by Mayor Zanni who took money from the free cash account to balance their budget and pay their bills. This reduced the town’s bond rating. Superintendent Scannell claimed it was because of special education and nobody questioned her or forced her to prove it.
Earlier this year, we learned for the first time that the school department was again overspending their budget, this time by a full $4M that superintendent Scannell claimed was all due to unfunded special education mandates.
Our research shows that not all of that $4M overrun was from special education, but Judy Scannell is highly respected, and we know she would never lie, so who would question her claims? Nobody did. City officials just took her word again and began the process of balancing her budget with a $4M bailout loan from the state. Mind you, all the while the council was debating borrowing money to balance Scannell’s budget, Scannell was giving out raises in the school department.
But, that didn’t matter, because School Committeeman DJ Deeb and other school supporters were feverishly trying to distract the public from school spending by keeping the focus on police salaries as if the cops are the bad guys for accepting the city’s offer of monumental raises.
The new city council was then faced with the option of a fiscal overseer, a full fiscal control board, or a very lower level of oversight by the state in exchange for the $4M state bailout loan they had to apply for.
Despite making some truly heroic votes, and being the first council to go through the budget line-by-line, at the end of it all they dropped the ball and decided they wanted the lowest level of oversight.
Councilor Jessica Finocchiaro warned her fellow councilors that there may be more scandals on the horizon and that only borrowing $4M, and going with the lowest level of state oversight, leaves the city more vulnerable for a much larger fiscal crisis in the future.
The council, concerned about maintaining their own power, ignored her warning and only borrowed the bare minimum of $4M needed to balance the budget, and also went with the lowest level of oversight.
On top of all that, the city council took $1.8M out of the police budget to punish the police, as if it was their fault that the previous city council voted on a contract that they admit they never read and didn’t know what was in it. This means at least 27 or more layoffs of patrolmen within the next year, which hurts the public more than it hurts the cops.
Then we learned that Superintendent Scannell lied about having her state certification and superintendent’s license. First, she said she had gotten her license but let it lapse. But some great reporting by the Loop Weekly showed she never had it. Days later we learned that she was never certified as an elementary school principal either for the ten years she held that position.
The school committee, as we stated in this edition’s editorial (page 2) swept it all under the rug when they decided to accept her resignation with no public hearing or investigation and no accountability for those who knew and let it happen in the first place.
SCANNELL ISN’T THE ONLY CITY EMPLOYEE WORKING WITHOUT A LICENSE
This week The Valley Patriot learned that the state has issued a letter concerning Methuen City Engineer Steve Gagnon saying he is not certified and not licensed as a city engineer. Gagnon was hired under the previous mayor and submitted his resume which clearly showed he was not certified as a city engineer and not licensed. The mayor hired him anyway. Councilors, who had to approve his hiring were told at the time that he was not certified but voted to approve his hiring anyway. He was approved with an 8-0 vote.
Now, the state has given the City of Methuen until the end of this month to rectify the situation.
Gagnon himself called the Valley Patriot after this story was posted on-line saying he has a letter from the state board stating he doesn’t need to be licensed because he is only doing administration work and that a private engineering consulting firm has been doing any actual engineering work.
Gagnon says the state gave him credit for 23 1/2 years of experience as an engineer but needs 25 years to qualify to take the state license exam. Gagnon says that the state would not count his time as an administrator for the City of Methuen. He says he didn’t know anything about a letter from the state to the city about his license and says he has been working for 33 years for the City of Methuen. Gagnon said he also took classes to be a DPW Director but the city hired someone else.
In the meantime, Methuen Mayor Jajuga has known about the Gagnon letter from the state for weeks and has not notified the public nor told the city council while he tries to quietly rectify the problem behind closed doors.
Not exactly a transparent way to run government.
STATE MUST TAKE OVER
Without spending another thousand words on all the other disgraceful issues plaguing Methuen like; the Sweetheart Inn project where the developer gave money to the mayor’s campaign; the community development board where three members resigned because the mayor took away their legal funding to fight the Sweetheart Inn project in court; or the Toll Brothers project, you start to see a pattern of, at the very least complete incompetence at every level of city government, and at worst total corruption by officials at every level of city government.
For their part the Methuen Superior officers union has asked for public documents from the school department to see how much they are spending on private contracts, how many city vehicles they have, and how much they have given in raises. To date, the mayor’s office has violated the state’s public records law (something I know a little bit about) and refused to turn over the information.
IN METHUEN NOBODY IS EVER HELD ACCOUNTABLE
It’s clear that nobody in Methuen is ever held accountable for anything. Ever.
Methuen needs a full state takeover. The city is in far worse shape than Lawrence has ever been in.
Despite doing a great job THIS year, the Methuen city council needs to be disbanded.
The school committee needs to be disbanded.
The mayor needs to be removed, and a full state oversight board needs to be appointed to run the day to day operations of city government until such time as Methuen can operate effectively and honestly.
Methuen doesn’t need a town manager or a different form of government. They don’t need more term limits or any other kind of change in operations. The structure of Methuen city government is not the problem. The people running Methuen city government are the problem. With very few exceptions, too few to make a difference, the people of Methuen have shown that they do not possess the capability of running their city like grownups.