- David A. Wilson, Executive Director
Media Contact for Ethics Commission Issues Public Education Letters to Former Methuen City Councilors James Atkinson, James Jajuga, and Lynn Vidler
Gerry Tuoti, Public Information Officer
Boston, MA — The State Ethics Commission has issued Public Education Letters to former Methuen City Councilors James Atkinson, James Jajuga, and Lynn Vidler to resolve allegations they violated the state conflict of interest law when they participated in two 2017 City Council votes to approve the Methuen Police Department Superior Officers’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA). According to the letters, the three former councilors relied on incorrect legal advice from the Methuen city solicitor when they voted on the Superior Officers’ CBA.
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.
According to the letters, Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler were prohibited from voting on the Superior Officers’ CBA because at the time of the votes Atkinson had a pending offer to work for the Methuen Police Department and Jajuga’s son and Vidler’s husband were superior officers in the Department. Relying upon erroneous advice from the city solicitor, however, the City Council improperly invoked the Rule of Necessity and Atkinson, Jajuga, and Vidler voted on the CBA in a pair of September 2017 votes.
With Atkinson, Jajuga, and Vidler participating, the City Council on September 18, 2017, twice unanimously voted to approve the Superior Officers’ CBA 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, at the time of the votes, they believed the CBA 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 under the newly approved CBA.
According to the Public Education Letters, the circumstances required to properly invoke the Rule of Necessity did not exist with respect to the City Council’s September 2017 votes to approve the Superior Officers’ CBA because the City Council was not legally required to vote on the CBA at that time and a quorum of councilors could have been reached without Atkinson, Jajuga, and Vidler. Thus, the Commission found that there was reasonable cause to believe that Atkinson, Jajuga, and Vidler’s participation in the votes violated the conflict of interest law.
According to the letters, the Commission chose to resolve these matters through Public Education Letters, rather than through adjudicatory proceedings, for several reasons: (1) Atkinson, Jajuga, and Vidler relied in good faith on the city solicitor’s advice in voting to approve the Superior Officers’ CBA; (2) prior to the CBA votes, all had a practice of abstaining from Methuen police matters; (3) none were involved in negotiating or drafting the CBA; (4) the City Council unanimously approved the CBA and evidently would have approved it without their votes; and (5) 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.
The Commission has statutory authority to rescind or cancel an action taken by a municipal board if it finds through an adjudicatory proceeding that a conflict of interest law violation substantially influenced the action. In resolving these matters with Public Enforcement Letters, the Commission did not conduct adjudicatory proceedings and did not find that Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler’s participation in the City Council’s votes to approve the Superior Officers’ CBA substantially influenced that approval. According to the Public Education Letters, the City Council, which, without any substantive discussion, twice unanimously voted to approve the Superior Officers’ CBA, evidently would have approved the CBA without the votes of Atkinson, Jajuga and Vidler.
The Commission encourages public employees to contact the Commission’s Legal Division at 617-371-9500 for free advice if they have any questions regarding how the conflict of interest law may apply to them.