By J.J. Huggins | Eagle Tribune
METHUEN — Joseph Solomon says he is ready and willing to return to work now that the state’s Civil Service Commission has ruled his firing as police chief was “without just cause.”
“I am anxious to return to work, to advance the interests of Methuen and its Police Department and to mend any fences that have been broken throughout this process,” Solomon said in a statement released by his attorney, Andrew Gambaccini.
But Mayor William Manzi and City Solicitor Peter McQuillan said the city will appeal to superior court within the 30-day deadline. McQuillan said the city will also seek to bar Solomon, 49, from returning to work until their case is decided.
“The evidence does not support the decision,” McQuillan said. “The termination should have been upheld.”
Manzi fired Solomon in May 2008, charging he verbally abused officers, misspent grant money and broke state law by using taxpayer money to buy marine equipment from his sister and brother-in-law.
But in a scathing, 125-page report issued yesterday, Civil Service Commissioner Paul Stein ruled the city failed to prove its case, and gave an Oct. 1 deadline to reach a settlement with Solomon or allow him to return to his job with back pay. Solomon was earning a $158,295 salary, but city councilors cut his pay by $25,610 shortly before he was put on paid leave in September 2007. Solomon sued and court records show the case is still pending in Lawrence Superior Court.
“Mayor Manzi was entitled to hold Chief Solomon accountable for errors made in the administration of the Methuen Police Department,” Stein wrote. “But by overreacting to politically-charged events, rather than seek the truth dispassionately and objectively, and piling on charges of no substantial merit, Mayor Manzi violated his obligations as an appointing authority and terminated Chief Solomon without just cause.”
Stein did slap Solomon with a one-year suspension without pay, saying he was partially at fault for misguided record-keeping of grant money and his defensive response to the issue, took too long to recuse himself in one officer’s disciplinary action, and wrote a letter to his private attorney including confidential personnel issues.
Stein also warned Solomon that he now has two disciplinary actions against him. Aside from the one-year suspension he imposed, Stein also upheld a three-day suspension Manzi handed down in 2007 for misspending a $23,000 federal grant the city was ordered to repay.
“Just as Methuen must take care to comply with its obligations under civil service law in the future, Solomon must see his reinstatement as admonition to correct his inadequate performance on pain of further discipline in the future,” Stein wrote.
Since Solomon has been off the job since May 2008, the suspension has already been served, Stein wrote. Manzi said he could not say how much back pay Solomon is owed.
“While I found that (Solomon), alone, is not responsible for what went awry in Methuen, his future as commander of its municipal police force depends on how seriously he recognizes the need to work on the weaknesses in some of his relational skills, which can lead to the kind of problems that produced the backlash against him in this case,” Stein wrote.
Most of Stein’s words were directed at the city and Manzi, saying the mayor’s “personal ambition and politically biased state-of-mind” was what motivated the firing.
“None of these mistakes were willful misconduct or entirely of (Solomon’s) own making, and all of them arose largely because of the toxic political atmosphere in which he was placed by those within and outside the (police department) who were actively seeking to remove him,” Stein wrote.
Manzi said Stein’s decision proves the Civil Service system is “broken.” He pointed to the length of the case (19 days of testimony over six months), the cost, and that Stein came up with his own way of disciplining Solomon.
“I do believe that the city clearly demonstrated both sufficient facts for the discipline that we gave and the need to move the department forward,” Manzi retorted.
However, Manzi said he “would entertain any reasonable offer” to settle with Solomon. Solomon’s statement said nothing about settling. The chief refused any further comment outside his home and marched in without saying a word.
“This process has been a humbling one and I have learned much about myself, not only as a person, but also as a police officer and a chief of police,” Solomon’s statement said. “The time that I have had to reflect on the past, present and future has served to make all the firmer my desire to serve the community of Methuen well and to lead the Methuen Police Department to the absolute best of my abilities.”
Manzi, McQuillan and current police Chief Katherine Lavigne, who replaced Solomon, went over the decision in the solicitor’s office in City Hall yesterday morning. If Solomon returns, Lavigne will be demoted to her old rank of captain, Manzi said. The least senior captain, Randy Haggar, would then be demoted to his old rank of sergeant.
Haggar declined to comment, as did other officers.
Lavigne appeared upset and didn’t say much. When asked about the impact that Solomon’s return will have on the police department, given the fact that some officers testified against Solomon at the hearing, Lavigne said, “It could be very difficult.”
Retired Methuen police Lt. Michael Alaimo, who testified for Solomon at the Civil Service hearing, was in Solomon’s driveway yesterday hoping to congratulate Solomon, who wasn’t home. Other supporters showed up later and hugged. Some hung congratulatory balloons and signs including a large one which read, “WELCOME BACK CHIEF!”
But Manzi said this decision will not help the future of the police department.
“(The decision) leads to continued uncertainty,” Manzi said.
Staff Writer Jim Patten contributed to this report.
If you are a member of the Massachusetts Police Association Legal Defense Fund and in need of an attorney to defend your rights, contact the Massachusetts legal defense attorneys at Reardon, Joyce, & Akerson for an initial consultation.
Reardon, Joyce & Akerson, PC
Massachusetts Police Defense Attorneys
4 Lancaster Terrace
Worcester, MA 01609
Telephone (508) 754-7285 • Fax (508) 754-7220