By: Brian Genest – Deember, 2019
It was a memorable year in Dracut.
Unfortunately, it was memorable for a number of self-inflicted struggles, shenanigans and scandals at town hall that are going to be hard to forget. For a small town, there sure were a lot of big happenings in 2019.
Shortly after the beginning of the year, Judicial Watch sent a letter challenging the constitutionality of the town’s restrictions on political signs.
“After hearing from a Dracut resident, we have reviewed the town’s zoning bylaw concerning political signs. It is not content-neutral and is therefore unconstitutional. We ask that you repeal or revise the bylaw immediately. In addition, we ask that you prohibit enforcement of the bylaw until the repeal or revision is complete. This will prevent any further chilling effect on political speech.”
Initially, Town Manager Jim Duggan called Judicial Watch a “special interest group” and tried to dismiss the issue.
“We’re not mandated for what is said within that letter,” the town manager proclaimed, when Selectman Joe DiRocco asked about it in February. (The First Amendment issue left Dracut officials mostly speechless!)
Six weeks later, Duggan put an article on the warrant to repeal the political-sign bylaw in its entirety. Town Meeting voted in favor of the repeal in June, removing illegal restrictions placed on town residents and political candidates that violated the First Amendment and rulings of the Supreme Court. The repeal came more than 15 years after the legality of the political-sign bylaw was first challenged in federal court.
With spring came a second free-speech issue: Duggan banned the Dracut Republican Town Committee from marching in the town’s Memorial Day parade. (Freedom of speech in Dracut? “Oh, please…”) Despite the fact that Selectmen publicly criticized the ban and spoke in favor of letting all town groups march, Duggan dug in and defied his five bosses. He tried to pass the buck to the American Legion and Colleen Garry, Dracut’s favorite strip-mall lawyer who provides free services for Post 315. (They definitely get what they pay for – and they deserve better!) When it looks like an inside job and it smells like cow manure, it’s dirty politics in Dracut – and Garry isn’t usually too far from the stench.
Anyway, it’s a shame that our veterans were put into the position of being forced to choose sides by Duggan and Garry, who politicized the parade for absolutely no reason other than politics. After all, freedom of speech is neither a Republican issue nor a Democrat issue; it’s an American issue. Our military forces fight all around the world and give the ultimate sacrifice to defend all of us and all our rights, without regard for anyone’s political party back here at home.
Ultimately, Judicial Watch interceded for a second time, to ensure freedom of speech wasn’t trampled by town government and that 22 members, associates and friends of the DRTC were allowed to march. In the end, the town’s about-face helped put a face on a group of patriotic citizens who simply wanted to honor our fallen veterans, like everyone else in the town parade.
Summer in Dracut certainly wasn’t a day at the beach for town government.
Instead, a tidal wave of self-inflicted bad news washed over town hall. Deputy Police Chief David Chartrand filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the town manager for retaliation, workplace bullying and harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined there was reasonable cause to believe the town discriminated against firefighter Justin George, who was placed on administrative leave in 2018 and ordered to undergo a psychiatric exam, after filing a town meeting article about military pay. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection issued an enforcement order against the town for the Beaver Brook trail project for violations of the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act.
Things were already sweltering when DiRocco brought a scorcher of a revelation to his colleagues on the board at their August meeting: the town apparently hasn’t been following the procurement process outlined by state law and a number of projects in town weren’t properly put out to bid, including the Beaver Brook trail project, the new firehouse in Collinsville and at least a handful of others. The Attorney General is currently investigating and the town is taking corrective actions, including hiring a procurement officer.
Speaking of scorchers, fire department issues caused a backdraft with town firefighters in the fall. As the result of a number of smoldering issues, members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2586, joined by the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, picketed the board of selectmen’s meeting, before bringing the heat inside and torching town officials.
The alarm was sounded loudly and clearly over what firefighters described as the town’s inappropriate actions, including failed contract negotiations, neglected vehicle maintenance and retaliatory actions taken against firefighters, including George. After the ruling from the EEOC, the American Arbitration Association found that Dracut’s actions violated the collective bargaining agreement and ordered the town to reinstate George to his position in the fire department. George has filed a federal lawsuit against the town for discrimination and retaliation.
With Duggan’s abrupt departure and a new town manager to be hired, it’s time to look to the future. Here’s to moving forward without personal, political and petty nonsense in town government. May 2020 be filled with professional leadership, integrity and the rule of law in Dracut.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Brian Genest is chairman of the Dracut Republican Town Committee and a member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee representing the Second Essex and Middlesex district of Andover, Dracut, Lawrence and Tewksbury. ◊