Friday, December 31, 2010

Shaw on Piendak

Warren Shaw has a nice column on the impending retirement of Town Manager Dennis Piendak. Shaw gives Piendak credit for his low key retirement announcement, saying it is indicative of how he has conducted himself over the past 24 years:

So it should come as no surprise that on the night he decided to make known his retirement plans, nobody from the media were in attendance.

The announcement came as you would expect it to, at an open and public selectmen's meeting without any advanced warning to anyone.

Shaw goes on to say he is not interested in the job (despite the rumors) and that politico Mike McLaughlin is a tad too "long in the tooth" to be the Town Manager.

Good column, see it all here.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #1: O'Loughlin loses re-election

The biggest shocker of the year, and in my opinion the biggest story of the year in Dracut, was 18-year incumbent Selectman James O'Loughlin losing re-election in May. I was convinced that he was going to be re-elected and even predicted that he would top the ticket. There were five people running for 2 seats and in the end, newcomer Cathy Richardson came in first followed by incumbent George Malliaros. O'Loughlin finished third followed by Brian Bond and Pete Wilde. I was at Town Hall that night and town employees were shocked and almost distraught. One guy who came by to hear the results was incredulous that O'Loughlin lost. He just kept saying over and over, "Jimmy O lost?"

I can't help but wonder if the Republicans in town were excited about the election of Scott Brown in January and were highly motivated to elect one of their own (Richardson) to the board. However, O'Loughlin had a lot of public, bruising fights the past couple of years, especially with John Zimini, Brian Bond, DATV, and Ken Martin and his reputation had taken a bit of a beating. He was not afraid to raise his voice or criticize people at meetings (yours truly was one beneficiary) and to some, it may have been a little unbecoming for a sitting selectman.

But, this does not take away from the fact that O'Loughlin was a masterful selectman. Recall his getting the Dracut Housing Authority's consultant back in September 2009 to publicly acknowledge that the concerns of Martin, Ken Cunha, et al about Louisburg Square were unsubstantiated or overblown. You can't also take away the fact that O'Loughlin does a lot of good at the Dracut Food Pantry and has raised some fine children. My wife knows his daughter and she told me that O'Loughlin's son is working with the poor in some regard. I see him Jim at Mass at Saint Francis often so he is a faith filled man.

It's too bad that his temper and rough persona got the best of him at times. He can be very intimating to talk to and I would be nervous just watching the selectmen meetings waiting for an argument or back and forth between O'Loughlin and Zimini. I will say that the meetings do seem like tense now that he is gone. But, Jim O'Loughlin served the town well for many years and we wish him well and thank him for his contributions.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bullying in Dracut?

As a teacher, one of hot topics right now is bullying. My school had a very moving assembly this year by a parent whose son committed suicide because he was being bullied. After the suicide of a South Hadley student earlier this year, the state passed a tough anti-bullying law. Too often, it seemed, that teachers and administrators passed off bullying as "kids will be kids." There have been tragic results.

Yesterday's Lowell Sun highlighted an alleged bullying case at Lakeview Junior High. One girl punched another girl because she said she was being bullied by her. The girl was suspended for punching the other girl.

The family of the girl who said she was being bullied contacted the principal of the school, Theresa Rogers, who, according to the Sun, told them that "police assistance might not resolve the problems." Hmmmm. They also brought the situation to Dr. Scott who said bullying was not taking place. The family even showed him copies of pages from the girl's Facebook page and Scott said "it's difficult for school officials to substantiate those claims when some students keep their Facebook accounts private."

Look, I have no idea what happened here other than what I read in the paper. I am sure the schools responded responsibly and fairly but something just doesn't sit right with me with this matter.

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #2: Mercier Gas Theft

Back in April School Committee Member (and former chairman) Ron Mercier was accused of stealing gas from his employer, the City of Lowell. Mercier worked for the city water department and was caught on tape, along with another employee, allegedly taking gas from city owned pumps for his personal use. There were stories that he called in sick the day he stole the gas and sent pictures of him on his boat to fellow workers.

Mercier was summarily fired from his job and is now pending trial in Lowell District Court (he was arraigned in July and pleaded not guilty). Shortly after this incident, the School Committee met and Mercier announced that he would not resign despite the public pressure to do so. Over eights months have passed and he's still on the board with little to no mention of his alleged crime anywhere. I said, as did many people at the time, that Mercier should resign if the charges are true. Somehow, someway he has survived.

The town does have a recall procedure but it's very cumbersome and hard to pull off. Unless he is convicted, I am guessing he is going to stay on until him term expires in 2012 - almost a year and a half away. Not good. Not good.

Mercier, this action notwithstanding, is a good guy. He is a young guy (younger than me) and has a young family. He needs to put this behind him so he can move on with his life. His career in politics is presumably over and he'll never get another public sector job again. Furthermore, the people of Dracut, especially the students of our public schools, deserve better. Yes, he hasn't been convicted of a crime but he was fired and Bernie Lynch would not fire someone unless he had solid proof of the theft. Too many public officials have broken the public trust lately. If Mercier truly cares about the people of Dracut, he will resign.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #3: The Return of Elaine Espindle

Yes, former Superintendent of Schools Elaine Espindle decided on her own in 2008 not to seek a new contract. No, she was not forced out by the School Committee. However, the situation had become so tenuous for her because of politics on the School Committee that she decided to retire. Former member DJ Deeb was particularly rough on her (remember him taking her on about the contract for Mr. Generoso?) which he said was him just doing his due diligence. Perhaps, but he and others made life very uncomfortable for her and she decided to leave despite her popularity with parents and school employees.

Bring in her replacement Dr. Spencer Mullin, practically hand picked by Deeb who (as Deeb even admits) was an unmitigated disaster. Mullin retired halfway through his contract and the School Committee decided to bring in a temporary replacement in March of this year to serve through June 30. The committee received a number of applications but Member Mike Miles motioned that they just go ahead and bring back Espindle without interviewing any of the candidates. There was some concern that the process to hire a temporary replacement was just a charade and if they were going to hire Espindle either way, they should have done so without soliciting applications.

But, either way Espindle was back and Deeb was long gone having been defeated for re-election in 2008. It was a great comeback story and a major vindication for her. She served until late June when Dr. Scott was hired and went off quietly back into retirement. Hollywood couldn't have written a better script.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #4: Drug investigation drags on...and on...and on...

This February after 7 years of waiting, the town finally got some closure on the 2003 theft of drugs from the Dracut Police Station.

Or did they?

Former Tewksbury Police Chief Al Donovan, who led the investigation, found that two Dracut officers, William Dubois and Leonard Wagner, were "intentionally deceptive" during the investigation into the theft. However, since the statue of limitations had expired, no charges could be brought.

Instead, Dubois and Wagner have been on paid leave for months and months earning tens of thousands of dollars in pay while the administrative hearings into their actions have been constantly delayed for procedural reasons. No one denies that they are entitled to due process but this is absurd. Taxpayers are getting sick and tired of public employees constantly getting kid glove treatment. If these guys were in the private sector, this would have been resolved long ago. This is not how Town Manager Dennis Piendak wants his career to end - to be seen as part of a process that dragged its feet while men, who allegedly aided and abetted the theft of evidence from a police trailer, earn thousands of dollars for staying home. The Sun reported last week that a deal may be in the works to settle this case but we shall see.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

New Town Manager?

Today's Column points out the people that they think will not be Dracut's next Town Manager. Most of the names are obvious but two surprised me. They were:

  • Gary McCarthy
  • Glen Edwards
  • Warren Shaw
  • John Cox
  • Michael McLaughlin

McCarthy just retired from the Dracut Water Supply District but even if he was interested, the Column points out that the Town Charter prohibits anyone from becoming Town Manager "who has served in an elected or appointed town position in the past five years." I did not know this provision existed. In addition to working at the DWSD, McCarthy is also Town Moderator. This same provision, the Column points out, excludes Edwards who is Assistant Town Manager/Town Planner.

Shaw, it seems, is quite content being out of town politics; Cox would never come to Dracut after serving as a State Representative and City Manager (plus his brother is, for now, a selectman and would be his boss); and as for McLaughlin...well, come on.

Look for the next Town Manager to come from out of town and from outside the political world ala Dennis Piendak.

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #5: Hiring of Dr. Scott

Last November, Superintendent of Schools Spencer Mullin shocked everyone when he announced that he was retiring in March. While people were angry at Mullin bailing early, you couldn't help but wonder if there was some sense of relief. Despite being a capable educator, Mullin's tenure as superintendent had been a disaster. His budgets had to be constantly rewritten, he was lambasted for his dismal communication, and he was criticized for never attending school activities (or, if he did he would just sit in the back and leave right away).

The final nail in Mullin's coffin was when he took his last days as superintendent as personal days without notifying the School Committee. No one could get in touch with him after he e-mailed his intentions to the committee. Member Mike Miles said at the time, "That's the real Spencer Mullin. Everybody gets to see the real Spencer Mullin one more time on his way out the door."

The School Committee was aware that the process that selected Mullin in 2008 was a PR disaster and this search had to be open and transparent...and it was. Chairman Matthew Sheehan and the committee, after some initial bumps in the road about the process, did a wonderful job selecting a new superintendent. They had open interviews, there were receptions with residents so people could meet the candidates, the search committee was diverse, and they hired an outside firm to advise them.

The result was Dr. Stacy Scott from Maryland. Scott, originally from Massachusetts, had applied for a number of superintendent jobs in the past, most prominently in Milwaukee. He also took a major pay cut to come to Dracut. This all led people to thinking that he won't be around for long - he just needed superintendent experience under his belt so he could move on to bigger places. We shall see.

Either way, there seems to be a lot less drama this year and little public controversy.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Deal in the works?

Yesterday's Lowell Sun reported that the town may be in settlement discussions with the two police officers who were found to be "intentionally deceptive" during the investigation into the 2003 theft of drugs from the police evidence trailer. Town Attorney James Hall had no comment on the story.

The two officers, who have earned tens of thousands of dollars while on paid leave, have had a number of hearings with Town Manager Dennis Piendak but even more have been cancelled or postponed for various administrative (i.e. delay tactics) reasons. It is union filibustering at it's best and many are growing frustrated with the slow progress. Yes, they deserve their due process but this is absurd. Get it done!

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #6: Senior Housing Goes Down Again

For the third time in a year, a project to build senior housing in town as appeared to go down in flames. Last year it was the property at 1476 Mammoth Road (Louisburg Square), earlier this year the proposed purchase of the Richardson land on Greenmont Ave. fell through, and now the project over on Nashua Rd. will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The latest project fell apart as the developer, Steve Coravos, needed to come up with hundreds of thousands in dollars in fees from the town. He appealed to the Sewer Commission and the Board of Selectmen for a reduction but to no avail. He dramatically walked out of the selectmen's meeting last month in disgust.

Either way, this speaks to a bigger problem in town. It seems nothing gets done lately without rancor. When I moved to town in 2005, the town had just built the junior high and Veterans Park, the library was under renovation, and the new police station was under construction. Granted, Canney Farm was completed (but not without controversy) and the high school looks to be headed towards a possible renovation but Town Hall is still unresolved, the Town Hall annex is an eye sore, the school administration building is non-ADA compliant and tired, and the old police station remains empty. The town needs some imagination and cooperation among its leaders to keep Dracut moving forward. The 2011 elections will be tough with two seats available and the town manager search on the agenda for the 2011/2012 term. Get your popcorn ready.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #7: Piendak announces retirement

It wasn't exactly a surprise and many people had been expecting it for sometime but earlier this month Town Manager Dennis Piendak announced that he would be retiring in April, 2012. He made the announcement almost 18 months in advance so the town would have plenty of time to find a replacement. Piendak's successor will only be the third town manager in town history. Piendak's predecessor only lasted six months before being ousted for misconduct.

Widely credited as the best town manager in the region, Piendak is known for his solid management skills, prudent fiscal management, and overall good demeanor. While many area towns have had to resort to major budget cuts during the Great Recession, Dracut has been left relatively intact thanks in part to union concessions and Piendak's control of the purse.

He will be hard to replace but the town has plenty of time to make a wise and prudent decision.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #8: Return of Tony and Ann's

This really wasn't a political or government moment but when Tony and Ann's, the beloved pizza shop from Chelmsford, re-opened after being closed for many years, there was a stampede of people to town. The new Tony and Ann's, now run by the family of the late Tony Privitera, opened on January 9 after what seemed to be an enternity at the corner of Broadway and Arlington Street.

For weeks the lines snaked out the door and down the street, cops had to direct traffic, no parking signs had to be placed on abutting property, and the wait for pizzas was hours and hours and hours. The shop has over 5,000 followers on its Facebook page with people from all over the country requesting delivery information! It took months for the fervor to die down and for normal wait times to resume. The first time I went, I waited over an hour just to order and was told to come back in 3 hours! They had to close early a number of times because they ran out of food!

It was a feel good story during the dead of winter and in the midst of a bad economy. Here was a local business, with legions of fans, resurrected and selling pizza like gangbusters. I wonder if the Board of Selectmen is kicking themselves for not tacking on the additional .75% meals tax when they had the chance! Imagine the revenue from Tony and Ann's alone.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #9: Leadership changes

2010 may be known as the Year of Change as a number of town leaders retired, resigned, lost re-election or, in one case, passed away.

1. Superintendent of Schools Spencer Mullin retired in early March (although he left days before his official date without telling anyone on the School Committee until he was gone tarnishing his already spotty legacy).

2. Steve Stone and Linda Trouville, longtime school department employees, resigned shortly after Dr. Stacy Scott replaced Mullin. Stone went to work in Peabody and Trouville became principal of St. Louis School in Lowell.

3. Library Director Dana Mastroianni abruptly resigned in July. Her replacement, Randy Robertshaw, came on board last month but not until the search committee refused to release any names or do a public search. Robertshaw previously worked in Tyngsboro before moving to the Midwest.

4. Dracut Water Supply Superintendent and longtime town employee Gary McCarthy retired this summer. McCarthy is widely credited with turning around the DWSD after the Lowell water theft scandal. He was replaced by his second-in-command Mark Riopelle.

5. Longtime Finance Committee Chair Gary Marsella passed away unexpectedly in July. In recent years Marsella had aligned himself with Selectman John Zimini and had gotten more and more involved in the politics in town. His death was a complete shock and many remember him as a kind and gentle soul who loved Dracut and his family.

6. This will be its own post later but in May, 18-year selectman Jim O'Loughlin lost re-election to newcomer Cathy Richardson. This was a major realignment in town elective politics.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010 - #10: Canney Farm Opens

Back on June 29, the newest park in town was dedicated on the land formerly known as Canney Farm. Christened Dillon-McAnespie Park (named after two Dracut fire fighters who died in a fire truck accident 75 years ago), the park was the brainchild of Brian Bond. It features a number of basketball nets, a playground, ballfields, and walking paths. It's not nearly as big as Veterans Park but it's pretty and gets a lot of use. In addition, as Town Manager Dennis Piendak points out, one can now walk from the park (located on Lakeview Ave.) all the way to Veterans Park without having to walk on the street once.

I took my kids to the park a number of times this summer and I overheard one person say that Market Basket was interested in buying the land. Now I have no idea how true that it is but either way, it speaks to the need to preserve open space in town. There is a lot of pressure I am sure to get more businesses in town to offset the town's reliance on residential property tax but in doing so, we risk losing our rural nature (which is already at peril).

So kudos to Bond and all the others who made this possible...and keep 'em coming.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Top Ten Moments of 2010

Like last year, I will be posting the top ten moments of 2010 in Dracut politics. I realize I've been quiet on the blogging front this year but there is still plenty to remember.

Number 10 comes tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Christmas presents

I know, I know. It's been a long time since my last posting. It's been insanely busy at work lately.

Anyway, today's Column has its annual Christmas presents to local pols. For Dracut:

For State Rep. Colleen Garry, who's had a tough year with the death of both parents. A basket of puppies to cheer her.

For Dracut Town Manager Dennis Piendak: A part of Pajamajeans to get used to the idea of casual wear as he prepares for retirement in 2012.

For the residents of Sesame Street in Dracut: A lifetime supply of air fresheners and Lysol for their ongoing battle with a neighbor's home where officials found more than 150 cats in the spring.

Speaking of Christmas gifts, Gerry Nutter has his own version over at his blog. Former Selectman Jim O'Loughlin swung back hard at Gerry's gift to him. See it all here.