The Methuen City Council had just approved a contract that would make police Chief Joseph Solomon one of the highest-paid law enforcement officers in the country, setting him up to earn $326,707 in 2019. Councilors would later say they didn’t know what was in the contract, but not a single member asked any questions before the February 2017 vote.
Over the next six months, the police chief handed out extraordinary favors to members of the council or their relatives. Councilor Sean Fountain, a veteran North Andover firefighter, was hired as a full-time police officer without ever taking a standard civil service exam. Council chairman James Atkinson was hired as a junior accountant for the police.
Relatives of three other councilors who already worked for Solomon received promotions — one became a captain, another a sergeant, the third a detective.
Now, an auditor hired by Mayor Neil Perry is putting Solomon’s management style under the microscope, raising hopes among current city councilors and many officers that Solomon could finally face a day of reckoning after 18 years of maintaining power through what they see as favoritism and micromanaging. No councilors remain from the group that approved Solomon’s contract in 2017, and their successors are at war with the chief, voting “no confidence” in his leadership in August.
“Nearly all of our controversies in the city tie back to one person — Joe Solomon,” said City Council chairman James McCarty. “We’re all looking forward to the day when we’re officially liberated from his reign.”
The auditor, former state public safety secretary Edward Flynn, is expected to file a draft report with Perry this month. In addition to looking at Solomon’s hiring and promotional practices, Flynn will consider morale among the police — so low that some officers have retired early, quit, or transferred to other departments to escape what they say is Solomon’s micromanaging.
“I just couldn’t take the abuse any more,” said Abel Cano, who transferred to the Lawrence Police Department after 15 years in Methuen. “I had to call if I was leaving the station, call if I stopped somewhere, even if I went to the bathroom. It was just torture."
Solomon declined requests for an interview, but through a spokesman and allies he has denied any wrongdoing. He pointed out that the mayor has the final say on hiring decisions; he only makes recommendations. In the cases of Fountain and Atkinson, the Legislature passed special legislation allowing them to work for the Police Department while they were councilors.
Solomon’s supporters say the chief is being unfairly targeted by politicians who are listening to a few disgruntled employees.
“A silent majority supports the chief. But the vocal minority usually are the ones who get the most press,” said Greg Gallant, president of the Methuen Police Superior Officers Association, which represents Solomon’s highest ranked officers. "I’ve worked personally with the chief for the last 26 years and I’ve found him to be of high integrity and moral character.”
Even before the controversy over his salary, Solomon had a long and stormy relationship with city leaders. In 2008, then-Mayor William Manzi fired Solomon, claiming he mismanaged grant money and engaged in conflicts of interest. But the state civil service commission largely sided with Solomon, reducing his punishment to a one-year suspension without pay and finding no willful misconduct. In 2014, he collected a $195,000 settlement from the city for wrongful termination.
By 2017, Solomon had forged a close alliance with another mayor, Stephen Zanni, with whom he negotiated a lucrative five-year contract that gave Solomon higher compensation than the police commissioners in Boston, Chicago, and other major cities. Zanni now says he didn’t know what he approved.
Videotape of the Feb. 21, 2017, meeting when city councilors approved Solomon’s contract shows that no one explained the chief’s contract to the members — and no councilors asked for any explanation. Four councilors who had personal ties to the police, including Fountain and three members with relatives on the force, abstained from the vote. The other five, including chairman Atkinson, all voted for Solomon’s contract without comment.
Then-Councilor James P. Jajuga, who abstained from the contract vote because his son was a police lieutenant, said he had no idea how much money the councilors had agreed to pay Solomon until a year later — March 2018 — after he took office as mayor.
By then, Solomon had promoted Jajuga’s son to captain. Jajuga, himself a former state trooper, said his son earned the promotion — he had scored first on a promotional exam.
And Jajuga said his son’s promotion did not reduce his distress when he discovered the cost of Solomon’s contract and a similarly lucrative contract for superior officers that the council also unanimously approved in September 2017.
“I was shocked,” said Jajuga. “I was surprised that he was being paid as much as he was for a department that size.”
Most councilors from 2017, including Atkinson, didn’t return phone calls, or said they had no specific memory of why they voted the way that they did. One couldn’t hang up the phone fast enough.
“I sold my condo and moved away, " said former councilor Tom Ciulla, who voted for Solomon’s contract. He said he always supported police and firefighters, but “who knows” what was in Solomon’s contract.
The atmosphere at City Council meetings, Ciulla recalled, “was so toxic, I’d run out of the room at the end of every meeting. I’m so glad to be out of it.”
Far from apologetic, Solomon argues that he is underpaid and that the city is not fully honoring his contract. Over the summer, he refused to take 10 unpaid furlough days to help the cash-strapped city work down a $7 million shortfall, the only Methuen department head to refuse the mayor’s request.
But Solomon’s critics say his downfall, finally, may not be his outsized paycheck, but the way he has used the Police Department to give jobs and promotions to his allies at the expense of other candidates.
Critics say that Solomon freely bent the rules for hiring police officers. In a community that uses the civil service system, candidates are supposed to be hired according to their grade on a civil service test. But Solomon employed a loophole to bypass the system.
Sometimes, he hired “intermittent officers,” invoking an obscure 1945 state law that allowed the city of Methuen to hire full-time officers outside of civil service to fill a manpower shortage. This way, Solomon could hire whoever he wanted without being constrained by civil service rules.
For full-time jobs, the chief also passed over candidates who ranked near the top of the civil service list, including veterans, instead choosing applicants with connections in the department. Meanwhile, Methuen opted out of the civil service process altogether for promotions, giving Solomon more leeway to promote favored officers.
In 2013, Solomon hired Matthew Despins as an “intermittent” police officer without requiring him first to take the civil service test. Despins, who worked for a private investigation firm owned by a friend of Solomon, became a full-time officer by 2015 —and Solomon acquired a piece of the security firm, Eagle Investigation Services, which he still operates.
When Perry, the mayor, discontinued the intermittent officer program last summer, Despins was already out injured and he sued the city for more than $1 million, arguing that he worked full time but did not receive the pay or benefits of other full-timers. He recently settled his case against the city for just under $250,000.
A history of favors in Methuen
February 21, 2017
Methuen City Council approves contract for Police Chief Joseph Solomon that makes him one of highest paid law enforcement officers in the United States. No one asks questions before the unanimous vote, but four abstain due to conflicts.
April 18, 2017
City Council approves resolution allowing Solomon to hire councilor Sean Fountain as a full-time intermittent police officer. He had abstained from Solomon's contract vote because he was already working part-time.
July 10, 2017
Chief Solomon promotes relatives of city councilors: Lynn Vidler (husband), and James Jajuga (son).
July 25, 2017
Councilor Jennifer Kannan's son is made detective. She had abstained from voting on Solomon's contract.
August 7, 2017
City Council approves resolution allowing Chief Solomon to hire City Council chairman Jamie Atkinson as a police accountant. Atkinson had voted for Solomon's contract.
September 18, 2017
City Council unanimously approves contract that pays huge raises to Superior Officers, including Jajuga's son and Vidler's husband.
New Mayor James P. Jajuga discovers that Solomon’s contract calls for him to be paid more than $300,000 a year.
Jajuga sends Solomon a letter saying he will not pay him his full salary.
Jajuga's successor as mayor, Neil Perry, seeks an outside auditor to review management of the Methuen Police Department.
Despins declined to answer questions, but issued a statement saying, “I am extremely appreciative for the opportunity to have served the citizens of Methuen during my time as a Police Officer."
Former councilor Fountain was also laid off last summer after three years as a full-time intermittent officer. Critics said that Fountain shouldn’t have been on the force in the first place since he hadn’t taken the civil service test and was older than 31, the upper age limit for a civil service position.
Critics also say Fountain was paid at a level usually reserved for officers on the job for more than four years. Within months, he was made a detective, one of the most coveted jobs in the department, according to payroll records.
Fountain declined comment, except to say he was “appointed by the mayor and associated legislation was then approved at the state level and ultimately by the governor.”
Fountain has threatened to sue the city for $1.5 million over his layoff, saying in a Oct. 8 legal demand letter that his hiring was “permissible” and his job performance “exemplary.” His lawyer argued that the City Council waged a “public smear campaign” that assaulted his “integrity, qualifications and livelihood.”
Perry, elected mayor in 2019, said he will push local legislators to seek repeal of the state law that allowed Solomon to hire intermittent officers.
“I strongly believe that this legislative act, unique to Methuen, is the source of some of our difficulties," said Perry.
But Captain Gallant, a Solomon ally, insisted that it was the mayor at the time and not the chief, who had the authority to hire Fountain and other intermittent officers. Gallant said the department needed to hire the intermittent officers because no candidates on the civil service list were available.
“There weren’t people on the civil service list willing to take the job,” he said. “The intermittents are called up in times of need, which would be determined by the mayor.”
Harold Lichten, an employment lawyer who has represented Methuen officers, said he believes Solomon’s efforts to hire “intermittent” officers was illegal, giving him “a tool to avoid hiring qualified minority candidates.”
When Despins was hired in 2013, there were only seven Latino officers in the department out of 83 even though Methuen is nearly one-third Latino. All but one of the supervisors were white men.
At the time Despins was hired, there were many candidates who had taken the civil service test, including a Latino candidate who was already trained and had been working as a police officer in other communities.
Jose Santiago, a college grad who served on the Salem State College police force and other departments for nine years, took the civil service test in 2013, but wasn’t hired as a full-time Methuen police officer until 2017.
Perry has created a committee to help diversify the city’s workforce.
The audit is scheduled to be turned over to the mayor. Perry said the auditors will present their findings to the City Council and the public, before deciding what to do next.
City officials are also awaiting the results of an investigation by state Inspector General Glenn Cunha, who has been looking at the police department’s union contracts, according to people who have spoken to investigators.
“I’m hoping these investigations will help us do what we’ve been trying to do for the past three years — reverse the police chief’s bad, self-centered decisions and get the city back on its feet,” said Councilor Steve Saba.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.