, Newburyport, MA

January 28, 2014

Holaday indicates readiness to sue


---- — NEWBURYPORT — Mayor Donna Holaday last night brought the new City Council up to date on the problems of the Plum Island water and sewer system, and much of her narrative has been aired before.

But there were new numbers: 147 hydrants will have to be fixed, and as many as 18,000 connective bolts could be faulty as the result of corrosion, she said.

Holaday did not disclose the city’s litigation plans against contractors and engineers who built the system, but she indicated that the municipality’s lawyers are ready to proceed on both criminal and civil fronts.

Following her open presentation to the council and those present, councilors voted to go into executive session (at her request) and the chamber was cleared.

The mayor said she would brief the council on the city’s litigation strategy.

Holaday declined to be specific (in public) about the city’s legal strategy, but she indicated the time is approaching when the city and its contracted lawyers will go to court.

The mayor said that the city has the support of the state Attorney General’s Office, the state Inspector General and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Her report to the council was grim, but she said that the city is “not stopping until we fix the problem” and that expense won’t be borne on the backs of the residents of Plum Island.

Because Newburyport and Newbury are in the water and sewer district together, residents from the two communities (and not limited to Plum Island) might someday be part of a financial solution.

City officials said that on April 27, 2011, a water main broke near the Plum Island Grill.

This was a “red flag” and municipal leaders began investigating. Another break took place in the same general area some months later, and that disruption convinced city officials that something was fundamentally wrong with the system.

Holaday, trained as a lawyer, said she has confronted the problem on a step-by-step basis.

Her team has done independent tests on pipes and attachments, they’ve met with contractors and engineers and they’ve been enlisting the aid of state legal officials for many months.

Her team has put together 58,000 “pieces of documentation” in preparation for the day when the city might have to sue those who installed the system, she said.

On a positive note, City Hall officials last night said that contractors have permitted the statute of limitations to be extended, and the city is therefore able to build its case in a relatively deliberate manner.

But Holaday has not been willing to discuss the city’s legal strategy, which has been a source of discontent for some island residents.

David McFarland, a former city councilor (2002-2003) and a Plum Island resident, last night spoke during the “public comment” section and urged the mayor to refrain from executive sessions.

He said that permitting plans to be made outside of public scrutiny contributed to the poor planning and suspect workmanship that got the city into trouble in the first place.

But when the open meeting of the council ended, the mayor and city officials retreated to executive session — reportedly to discuss the legal strategy that is a key component to solving this complex problem.