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In Methuen, a move to roll back superior officers’ salaries

METHUEN — Faced with the prospect of heavy layoffs, city officials continue to wrangle with the fallout from a pair of controversial union contracts with police officers that has created a financial crisis and spurred a critical state report.

At a City Council meeting Monday, Paul J. Fahey, the chief of staff for Mayor James P. Jajuga, said the mayor plans to roll back salaries for superior officers — the heart of the current controversy. Fahey said the hope was that the move would bring the union back to the negotiating table, but he acknowledged that it could trigger litigation.

“It was a difficult decision,” he said.

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The mayor’s office has asked the council to transfer $1.8 million to the Police Department’s budget to avoid laying off patrolmen. The council tabled the measure and plans to discuss a state report regarding the situation on Thursday.

On Friday, the state inspector general’s office said that Methuen officials should rescind two contracts with police unions, including one that would have paid police captains more than $400,000 per year.

City Councilor Steve Saba said he wants assurances the city has rolled back the superior officers’ salaries and to find out how much money has been spent under a memorandum of agreement between the mayor’s office and the superior officers union that the council never approved.

“I’m not going to vote in favor of moving a penny until we get these answers,” he said.

The contract turmoil has triggered a political impasse that could lead to scores of patrol officers in this city of 50,000 on the New Hampshire border being laid off. Last month, 50 Methuen police officers, more than half the city’s force, were given layoff notices.

Jennifer Kannan, the council’s chairwoman, said the board had asked state authorities last summer to review the contract situation and plans to pursue the recommendations contained in the inspector general’s report. “It’s important for the residents of Methuen to know that this council takes this report and its recommendations very seriously and will, in an open and transparent way, discuss all necessary steps to remedy a very troubling situation,” she said.

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In the report, state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha questioned the validity of the first contract, reached last year, and a second pact that sharply reduced salaries but still awarded significant raises.

The office found that Stephen Zanni, a former mayor, and the Methuen City Council in 2017 likely violated state laws, failed to comply with the city’s regulations, and breached their fiduciary duties to residents through the negotiation and approval of a contract with the Methuen Police Superior Officers Association, a group of about two dozen officers, including sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. The pay bumps would have “far exceeded the Police Department’s budget,” the report found.

The report found that local officials failed to analyze the financial impact of the contract as mandated under city rules. Investigators also found the City Council improperly invoked a procedural rule to allow councilors with conflicts of interest to vote on the contract. City councilors and the former mayor “neglected their obligations as public officials to exercise care and due diligence on behalf of Methuen’s residents,” the report concluded.

Fahey and Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon said the City Council reduced the Police Department’s budget by $1.8 million for this fiscal year because it did not receive concessions from the mayor’s office over the contract situation. Layoffs could be avoided if the council reinstated that funding, Fahey said.

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If no action is taken, an additional 21 patrol officers could be fired, Fahey said. That would be all the patrol officers.

Jajuga, who was sworn in as mayor in January 2018, has insisted that he and the other members of the City Council were told by Zanni that it would grant the police raises of just 2 percent annually in 2018 and 2019. The contract also includes a formula requiring officers’ benefits be calculated as part of their base pay, significantly boosting the total.


Globe correspondent John Hilliard contributed to this report. Previous Globe coverage was used in this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.