NEWBURYPORT — The city solicitor fielded questions from the City Council on Monday after it was discovered some city department heads recently had their contracts signed, but the timelines did not match up with their appointments.
For example, a department head may have a contract with the city for five years, but the actual appointment might expire within two years. Some councilors questioned why the timelines did not match up and what jurisdiction they have in this situation.
In advance of the meeting, Ward 1 Councilor Sharif Zeid sent questions to Darren Klein, an attorney for KP Law, which is the city solicitor. The questions involved the amount of power held by the mayor versus the council.
When a mayor negotiates a contract, that contract is subject to funding from the council. All appointments and reappointments are subject to the council's confirmation. The negotiated contract itself is not subject to council confirmation, only the funding.
Contracts for city department heads vary. Some department heads are nonunion, while others work under collective bargaining agreements.
The finance director, for example, falls under Chapter 41 Section 108N of Massachusetts General Laws. Under that, the mayor is authorized to enter into a multiyear contract that is binding, regardless of council action, Klein said.
The city marshal and fire chief — the city removed both positions from civil service a decade ago — fall under Chapter 41 Section 108O, which means the mayor can authorize a multiyear contract but it is subject to annual appropriation by the council. So, even if the fire chief has a five-year contract, that contract is treated like a series of one-year contracts due to the need for annual appropriations.
If the council approves funding for the first year of a collective bargaining agreement, it is locked into a binding, three-year contract, Klein said.
There is nothing prohibiting the mayor from renewing contracts, even if they have not yet expired, according to Klein.
By law, there are no length limitations on nonunion employment contracts but "the general rule is no greater than three to five years," Klein said, noting this length limitation could help avoid public policy challenges.
If someone were to challenge the contract, that person would need to prove "it was entered into bad faith," he said.
Zeid asked about the relationship between an employment contract and the City Council as the appointing authority.
If there is an employment contract, but the council does not approve the reappointment of someone whose term has expired, the city could argue that the contract is now void, Klein said.
Also during the meeting, Ward 4 Councilor Christine Wallace introduced Ordinance 75, which seeks to create a safety zone on Merrimac Street near Lower Atkinson Common.
Wallace, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Ward 5 Councilor James McCauley and Councilor at large Charles Tontar, explained that a safety zone "is very similar to a school zone, but it's allowed for uses next to parks or areas that might have a lot of activity."
Several people spoke in support of the proposal during the public comment session, citing concerns about the safety of the area due to the proximity of the street to the park, particularly during baseball season.
The ordinance was referred to the Committee on Public Safety for further discussion.