Lawyer: Methuen Police Superiors Contract ‘Unenforceable’

METHUEN, MA — A law firm retained by the City Council issued an opinion Monday saying the police superior union’s contract is “unenforceable.”

The City Council hired Valerio, Dominello & Hillman LLC — a Westwood-based firm specializing in labor and employment law — amid the ongoing police pay dispute that has pitted councilors against the mayor for months.

In a letter Monday, attorney John Foskett said there are several issues that would nullify the salaries set forth in the second and third years of the superiors’ contract — soaring increases that could have seen five captains each earning about $434,841 on average this year, according to the city’s initial calculations.

“It definitely tells us as a council that look, we’ve got a responsibility to handle the city’s money properly, and if we’re being told by our attorneys that our contract is not binding, we’re doing the right thing holding our ground,” said East District Councilor Steve Saba, who solicited the legal opinion.

Foskett said “cost items,” such as the salary calculations in the contract, needed to be submitted to the council for “an appropriation which is sufficient to fund those cost items — failing which appropriation, the items are returned to the bargaining table.”

The council was not provided a financial impact statement when reviewing the current contract in September 2017, nor a cost analysis of that contract versus the one prior, which Foskett said violated a council ordinance from a decade prior. The Methuen Police Superior Officers Association is in the second year of a three-year contract, valid from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2020, that included raises in the second and third years.

Foskett also said salary information provided by the city auditor’s office shows superior officers were compensated the same in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. That means there “was not an appropriation sufficient to fund the cost items for the first year” of the collective bargaining agreement, which the law firm believes “renders the salaries set forth in the second and third years of the (collective bargaining agreement) unenforceable,” Foskett wrote.

Though officers were not set to receive raises in the first year of the new contract, Saba said according to the attorney “there were other components that were supposed to be funded” and weren’t.

“The original police contract, in order for it to be enforceable, in order for it to be binding, had to be fully funded in the first year — what they’re saying is, is that it was not,” Saba said of the law firm.

Saba took the legal opinion to mean the police superior’s contract would not stand up in court, and that the mayor’s office and superiors union should go back to the table and renegotiate the agreement.

Jajuga cannot participate in negotiations due to a conflict of interest because his son is a captain in the Police Department.

The mayor and the City Council are headed for a showdown over police pay in February, with neither side willing to budge or bargain their positions.

Jajuga is paying superior officers at rates set forth in a memorandum of understanding that was agreed to in July by the union, but never approved by the council. The memorandum was designed to lessen the financial impact of the steep raises of the original contract, and would see captains each earning $188,206 on average instead of more than $430,000.

Displeased with the agreement, the council cut $1.8 million from the police personnel budget. Jajuga has since been pushing councilors to return the money from the stabilization account, saying that if they don’t, he will run out of funds to pay the Police Department at current staffing levels in February, likely leading to massive layoffs of patrolmen.

Saba said Monday that Foskett’s opinion was all the more reason to hold his ground.

“How do I justify to the taxpayers that we move the money even if we’re being told the contract was not legal to begin with,” he said.

Paul Fahey, the mayor’s chief of staff, declined to comment because the mayor’s office did not receive a copy of the letter from the council.

Jajuga, who was not at Monday night’s council meeting due to a personal matter, could not immediately be reached for comment.

From The Eagle-Tribune