METHUEN — An ordinance that would reduce the number of captains in the Police Department from five to three is scheduled to go before the City Council for consideration next Monday night.
But action on the measure isn’t expected for at least another month, if not longer, as the city and superior officers’ union are in arbitration over a pay dispute.
City Council President James McCarty said he and others on the council have tried to reduce the number of superior officers at least three different times in an effort to “make the department more efficient.”
In fact, the title of the proposal is, “An Ordinance to Enhance the Efficiency of the Police Department.”
McCarty said Methuen has more superior officers than any other department in the state, and fewer patrolmen than departments from comparable communities.
“This is strictly a staffing issue,” he said.
Members of the Police Superior Officers Union sees it differently.
Union President Greg Gallant said Tuesday that if McCarty goes through with the ordinance proposal, he and the other councilors will face a lawsuit.
“Those are emotional decrees, not based on fact or data,” Gallant said, referring to some of the purported reasons for proposing the ordinance change. “If he can’t justify removing two captains, that would be a retaliatory action against a union in violation of Chapter 150E of state law.”
Chapter 150E covers labor relations with public employees.
The union is currently engaged in a legal battle with the city over the superior officers contract. The city maintains that the superior officers knowingly engaged in activity to alter their contract, inflating their salaries to extremely high levels with captains set to make $430,000 each.
The union says it collectively bargained the contract fairly and that it was approved by the mayor and City Council at the time.
On March 10 to 12, an arbitrator will hear arguments from both sides and presumably issue a binding opinion sometime later this year.
McCarty said the proposed ordinance will be either tabled or referred to the council’s committee on Public Safety, where it will likely be held or “frozen.”
Gallant said he’s “not worried” about the proposed ordinance.
“Since 2010, the performance of the Police Department has been at a very high level,” he said. “There are no complaints about use of force or employee issues. In the last 10 years, there were no issues until our contract issue arose.”
He said the department is not “top heavy,” as some have claimed, but is consistent with other departments and on par with the Methuen Fire Department, which has almost exactly the same staffing levels.
But McCarty and others say it’s really all about getting a handle on the city budget.
“We’re trying to get ahead of it (the budget),” he said. “Taxpayers need to see this kind of activity.”
Councilors Steve Saba and D.J. Beauregard, both members of the Committee on Public Safety, agreed.
“This isn’t something new,” Saba said. “In 2018, we attempted to do that. I introduced the reduction of their (police superior officers salaries) budget by $1.8 million, to reduce the number of captains to three. We discussed it many times — reducing captains.”
But instead of taking money out of the superior officers’ budget, former Mayor James Jajuga took money out of the patrolmen’s budget, which would have resulted in layoffs of 50 of them. Jajuga’s son was a captain at the time.
“We took it from the bottom line, but the mayor took it all out of patrolmen,” Saba said. “As we get to budget time, we are trying to position the city where we can just do the right thing for the taxpayers.”
He added, “It’s not retaliatory. They love to throw this stuff around. I’m not going to ever make my decision based on what Greg Gallant says. It’s going to be what’s best for the taxpayers. We are very confident with arbitration that this will help put us in the right spot.”
Beauregard said the whole point of the ordinance was to “get a handle on this before the budget season starts.”
“We are going to refer to the Committee on Public Safety and let them review it,” he said. “And once the committee has had a chance to digest it, we will look at it.”
The fourth councilor on the Public Safety committee, Allison Saffie, could not be reached for comment.
Police Chief Joseph Solomon could not reached to comment on the impact a reduction of two police captains might have on the department’s performance.