Metro

Saugus reinstates manager as contract dispute looms

The political furor over who will serve as the town manager in Saugus has taken a new turn, just one week after residents voted to recall four of the town’s five selectmen.

The new board voted unanimously, 5 to 0, on Tuesday to void a contract signed by their predecessors on March 13 to hire Sean Fitzgerald of Peabody as the new town manager.

The selectmen also voted to reinstate Scott Crabtree, the former town manager whose controversial firing in October by the previous board led to the March 17 recall election.

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Crabtree has agreed to drop a whistle-blower lawsuit he filed in January against the town, claiming wrongful termination, in exchange for being paid $42,000 in lost wages and up to $30,000 for legal fees, according to a town attorney.

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“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the town I live in and grew up in,” said Crabtree, 45, a former selectman and town police officer, who served for 2½ years before being fired for alleged financial and managerial offenses.

But Fitzgerald, who was sworn into office on March 16, believes his contract is valid.

“My contract received a thorough review,” said Fitzgerald, 44, who is in the midst of wrapping up an eight-year tenure as town manager in Plaistow, N.H. “I don’t want to be in conflict with the new board, but I have a signed contract. . . . I don’t know how they can dismiss that.”

Selectmen Chairwoman Debra Panetta said in an e-mail to the Globe that she was “advised by Town Counsel to have no communication with Mr. Fitzgerald as it pertained to the contract that was being reviewed by special labor counsel.”

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Fitzgerald signed a three-year contract that was to pay him $125,000 annually. “I am now looking at my legal options,” he said.

The dispute is the latest twist in a political drama mired in litigation.

In February, a political action group that launched the recall filed suit in superior court, seeking to stop the former board from hiring a manager three weeks before the recall.

But Judge Robert N. Tochka denied the request, writing that the selectmen “are required to carry out the duties and responsibilities of that office. Selecting a new town manager is clearly one of those duties.”

Jay Sullivan, a Boston attorney who serves as the town’s labor counsel, said the selectmen’s decision to sign a contract with a new town manager just days before an election violates public policy law.

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“When a board of politicians tries to do lame-duck, or last-minute, contracts just before an election, they’re not enforceable,” Sullivan said.

But Neil Rossman, a Peabody attorney who advised the former board on the contract, disagreed. “The court said they had the authority to do it,” Rossman said.

Around Saugus, some residents are weary of the drama.

“I’m getting fed up with it,” said Martin Graney, 72. “We need people who are focused on leading the town forward.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.