By: D.J. Deeb – October, 2010
Perhaps the title of this column should be, “The Importance of Studying Several Different Sources Before Making a Decision”, but I just found it fascinating at this past June Town Meeting how Dracut’s various media outlets and Internet blogs handled a certain warrant article, which I felt should’ve been given a heck of a lot more publicity prior to the first Monday of June. Warrant Article 20, basically asked Dracut voters if they wished to continue having stipend elected officials eligible to enroll on the Town employees’ health insurance coverage as prescribed in Massachusetts General Law 32b. M.G.L. 32b allows individual cities and communities in the State the option of whether it wants to maintain this perk for its stipend elected officials or just eliminate it. In the past couple of years, for example, both Tyngsboro and Chelmsford eliminated this perk for its stipended elected officials. Dracut officials refuse to allow voters a choice, one way or another, on this particular issue.
Reportedly, there are at least three individuals (two current Selectmen and one “retired” Selectman enrolled in this health insurance coverage) exploiting our Town’s family health insurance collectively for about $72,000 per year ($18,000 per enrollee). This is quite a generous perk for a supposedly voluntary community service, wouldn’t you say? Also, the three individuals in question here are probably more financially wealthy than at least 90 percent of Dracut residents. I don’t believe any one of them would break a sweat if they had to purchase their family’s health insurance coverage privately. Instead, the lowly Dracut taxpayers get stuck footing the bill on this perk for these high-and-mighty privileged politicians. Can you blame them for taking advantage of this perk when the special interests who dominate Dracut Town meeting hand it to them?
Now, from what I’ve described thus far, wouldn’t you assume that the local media and Internet blogs would get all over this like a snake on you-know-what? Unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case.
I hate to toot my own horn, but this issue was the subject of my May column in this same newspaper. It also got fairly good coverage on the Internet message board, “Dracut After Dark”, as well as the local access TV show, “Inside Dracut Politics”. Aside from these three entities, this controversial warrant article in that June Town Meeting was one of the best kept secrets in town.
Incidentally, this past June Town Meeting had just barely had a quorum with approximately 250 people in attendance. There was a push to eliminate the elected pols’ stipends in an earlier warrant article, which would’ve automatically killed the perk because that’s a requirement to M.G.L. 32b, but that failed because most of the crowd felt that our Selectmen, School Committee members, and Town Moderator were all deserving at least of some financial compensation for their public service. Article 20, however, was taken off the Town Warrant because our Town Attorney claimed that it was illegal. Both Chelmsford and Tyngsboro successfully managed to remove this perk from any of its stipend elected officials to exploit while Dracut, for whatever reason, is stuck with it. Incredible!
Getting back to the media coverage of this warrant article (or lack thereof), The Lowell Sun had to be the most disappointing. Arguably, still the number one source for news and information in Dracut, The Sun did absolutely nothing to promote the importance of this warrant article, or any other aspect surrounding this annual event, for at least 3-4 weeks prior to the June 7th date.
A couple weeks prior to the June Town Meeting, The Sun wrote two different editorials pertaining to Dracut – one calling for the resignation of an elected official, and another pushing for the termination of two town employees – the timeliness of both those commentaries could’ve easily waited till at least late August since neither one of them were appropriately addressed until months after that Town Meeting. On the weekend just prior to the June Town Meeting, The Sun published a rash of graduation articles from several of the schools in its circulation area. No disrespect to our recent graduates, but couldn’t those stories have waited till a couple days afterwards? From a news perspective, where should the priority be here?
Then, four (4) days AFTER the June Town Meeting (June 11, to be exact), The Sun FINALLY published a wonderful editorial on this issue titled, ’Dracut boards should give up insurance perk’. Funny thing, it seems whenever The Lowell Sun officially endorses a political candidate, it does it 1-2 days BEFORE the election so that the editorial can actually have some relevance and significance behind it. To publish an editorial like that four (4) days AFTER the event, just makes it totally superfluous and irrelevant.
Among the fantastic comments from this aforementioned editorial included:
“…Was the vote truly representative of what most of Dracut’s about 31,000 residents want in regard to this issue? We’re not convinced. However, if the vote is not a fair representation of residents’ wishes, they have only themselves to blame for failing to attend Town Meeting…”
Personally, I would just add to that statement that if Dracut’s local newspaper of record – The Lowell Sun – had adequately reported on this particular issue 2-3 times within about a week BEFORE that June Town Meeting took place, there might’ve been enough people to have shown up and voted to eliminate this perk from ever being an option again. Granted, a lot of folks are aware that Dracut’s annual Town Meetings are scheduled the first Mondays of June and November every year, but unless they know of a passionate, controversial issue(s) that’s scheduled to be addressed, they probably won’t bother showing up.
I am extremely thankful that we still live in a society, which if one doesn’t like the final outcome in most public forums, they can always pursue an appeal to a higher court. In this particular case, the ‘higher court’ (or next logical step of progression) would be, a referendum ballot question in an upcoming local or statewide election. The way I figure it, at least 20 percent of the registered voters making their decision in a private booth would produce a much better reflection on how Dracut truly feels about this issue as opposed to the just barely one (1) percent who had to literally shout out their vote at this past June Town Meeting. Don’t expect the Dracut pols to let this happen.
As for The Lowell Sun, if its coverage of this particular Town Meeting warrant article was a typical example of its best news reporting, then how the heck can anybody – especially the folks of Dracut – take that publication seriously any more?