LOWELL -- The City Council unanimously called for a report on the costs of the city obtaining surveillance of city employees, with two councilors stating on Tuesday night there has been a lack of transparency about the topic.
City councilors also voted to seek a report on the hiring of outside attorneys in light of spending on cases filed by former library workers, with one councilor saying the issue is one reason the Law Department is "ripe for review."
Also Tuesday, the City Council delayed action on the fiscal 2015 budget until Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Mayor Rodney Elliott, who filed the motion seeking more information about the city paying for surveillance, said the council is not kept up to date about the issue and it should be.
"Funds should not be spent without any oversight and on witchhunts in my opinion," said Elliott, asking for city surveillance spending in the last five years. "It's time for accountability."
City Councilor Ed Kennedy echoed the call for more information, stating former City Manager Bernie Lynch's administration was "less than transparent regarding the expenditures on surveillance."
"There has been somewhat of a cloak of secrecy about how much money we do spend and when we spend it," said Kennedy, adding that it would be good for the council to review the policy for the city seeking surveillance.
After the meeting, City Manager Kevin Murphy called the use of surveillance a "rash method," and said if it is used, it should be used "in the most heinous incidents and not on lower-level issues."
"I'm looking at when they use surveillance and whether it should be used at all," said Murphy, who took over in mid-April.
The Sun recently reported that the city has surveillance of Diane Cloutier, one of two library assistants to file legal claims against the city in recent years.
In July 2011, The Sun reported that the city spent $27,142 -- from Nov. 21, 2008, to Oct. 14, 2010 -- on private investigators who investigated employees suspected of wrongdoing. The records covered 10 closed cases and the funds were paid to Absolute Investigations of East Bridgewater.
The city's legal tab for a private attorney hired to defend city employees against legal claims filed by Cloutier and one other former library assistant exceeds $200,000. The attorney, Jean Musiker, has charged the city a "reduced fee" of $425 an hour, The Sun reported.
Elliott said he was "astounded" by the overall tab and cost per hour for Musiker. He said there was a "troubling pattern" in the Law Department of letting legal costs accumulate to taxpayers.
"That department is ripe for review, especially when it comes to the use of taxpayer funds for professional services," said Elliott.
The mayor said past examples he was referring to were the closed cases of former police officer Robert Alvarez and former Lowell High School Housemaster Patricia Kealy. In both cases, the city's legal tab for judgments and fees rose by hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.
Kennedy said he agreed that spending on outside attorneys "has gotten out of control," but he pinned the blame on Lynch's administration, saying the Law Department was not at fault.
"I would blame the prior administration and the policy that they had," Kennedy said.
Murphy said afterward that in light of the revelations about the spending on the library cases, he and the city solicitor have begun examining ways to reduce the city's use of outside counsel, and decrease the costs if the city has to turn to a private attorney.
"Quite honestly, there are a lot of good lawyers in Lowell that charge less than $425 an hour," Murphy said.
City Solicitor Christine O'Connor declined to comment after the meeting.
The council approved Elliott's request for a report outlining costs spent on private attorneys the last five years, the rate paid to the attorneys and the process for hiring them. No other councilors spoke on the legal costs and surveillance issues.
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