Ethics Commission Says Three Methuen Councilors Likely Violated Ethics Law in 2017 Police Vote

Methuen City Hall. (Creative Commons.)

The State Ethics Commission says three former Methuen city councilors likely violated conflict of interest law by voting on the Methuen Police Department Superior Officers’ contract in 2017.

In a decision released today, the Commission said it has found “reasonable cause” to believe then-City Councilors James Atkinson; James Jajuga, who later became mayor; and Lynn Vidler violated the state conflict of interest law when they participated in two votes to approve the superior officers’ contract. All three have agreed to accept so-called “public education letters” in lieu of other punishment to resolve the allegations. The Commission partially released the officials from liability since they had relied on an erroneous opinion of City Solicitor Richard J. D’Agostino that the “rule of necessity” allowed all councilors to vote.

According to the letters signed by Commission Executive Director David A. Wilson, Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler were prohibited from voting on the agreement because Atkinson had a pending offer to work the Methuen Police and Jajuga’s son and Vidler’s husband were superior officers.

The contract contributed to financial upheaval in the city. State Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha said last year, “…if the City were to pay under the Superiors’ Contract, it would constitute a waste of public funds. According to documentation provided by the City, one estimate of the financial impact of the Superiors’ Contract demonstrates that police captains would receive a one-time raise of up to 183.49%. This would result in an estimated average salary for captains of $432,295 per year, not including overtime and paid details. At that salary, Methuen’s police captains would earn significantly more than the Police Commissioners for Boston, Los Angeles and New York, the Superintendent of Police for Chicago and the Massachusetts State Police colonel.”

The conflict of interest law prohibits municipal employees, including elected officials, from participating officially in matters involving their own financial interests, those of an immediate family member or those of an organization with which they have an arrangement for future employment. In rare circumstances, however, when an elected board is legally required to act on a matter, when it is not possible to reach a quorum of board members without conflicts of interest, and when there is no other governmental body that can act on the matter, the board may invoke the judicially created “Rule of Necessity” to allow the conflicted members to participate.

The Ethics Commission said, Methuen City Councilors unanimously voted twice Sept. 18, 2017 to approve the contract with no presentation, discussion or explanation prior to the votes regarding the terms, cost or financial impact of the agreement.

Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler testified under oath that they believed the contract provided for no pay increase in its first year, followed by 2% raises in the second and third years. After Jajuga became Methuen’s mayor, his office conducted a financial analysis that estimated the superior officers’ salaries would actually rise more than 180% to approximately $440,000.

The Commission said the rules of necessity did not apply because the City Council was not legally required to vote on the contract at that time and a quorum of councilors could have been reached without Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler.

Commissioners said they chose public education letters rather than formal hearings because Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler relied in “good faith on the city solicitor’s advice,” all had a practice of abstaining from Methuen police matters, none were involved in negotiating or drafting the agreement, the City Council would have approved it without their votes and all cooperated fully with the Commission’s investigation.

Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler each agreed to the issuance of the Public Education Letters and chose not to exercise their rights to a hearing.

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