DRACUT -- As the only incumbent running in a four-candidate race for two seats on the Board of Selectmen, Bob Cox said he expects to be targeted politically by opponents and their supporters leading up to the election on May 5.
So Cox, a 30-year resident and Dracut business owner, was prepared to respond when anonymous comments were posted this month to an online town message board.
The posters attacked Cox for accepting town health-insurance benefits and for not voting in November's special election. He was also faulted for not having publicly declared his position on the $2.9 million Proposition 2 1/2 override before the November special election.
In an interview last week, Cox acknowledged his failure to cast a ballot in the override election due to a "bout with vertigo," he said.
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In addition, Cox confirmed that if he wins re-election to a fourth term and completes his 10th year in office in May 2015, he and/or his spouse, Leslie, are grandfathered into being eligible to receive town health-insurance coverage for life -- a $15,000 annual benefit. It's an entitlement in which he intends to participate, Cox said.
Interim Town Manager Ann Vandal, who is also Dracut's treasurer, said no other selectman or School Committee member receives a stipend of $5,000, and therefore are precluded from getting any kind of retirement benefits from the town.
However, Cox was already in office when the eligibility requirement to receive town health insurance was changed in 2010 -- from no cap to $5,000 annually -- so he still qualifies.
"That's why he is in the gray area where, if he was to be re-elected again, he'd hit that 10-year mark during his next term," Vandal said. "Then, whether or not he's eligible for retirement depends on what his eligibility is with the Middlesex County Retirement system.
"Our eligibility for health insurance is based on the fact of whether or not you're collecting a check from Middlesex County Retirement because we need a source to collect a payment from for that plan," she added.
Cox confirmed that he would meet all qualifications for the benefit, and that he would accept it.
"That is true -- that tenure is achieved after serving 10 years, but that is not why I ran for selectman," Cox said. "It's a benefit that was available long before I served on the board. Warren Shaw still partakes of the town health insurance. James O'Loughlin could have, had he not gone to work for the state Lottery."
Shaw and O'Loughlin are both former Dracut selectmen.
According to pension-reform laws enacted in 2009, elected and government officials earning less than $5,000 annually are prohibited from calculating those years as credible service toward their pension. But the new laws don't prevent elected officials from joining the retirement system.
In a 2010 effort to rein in costs, town officials and the public employees' union agreed to change the definition of eligibility to include only those employees being paid a minimum of $5,000 a year.
Other board members, including long-serving Selectman John Zimini, who is not seeking re-election this spring, and Selectmen Chairwoman Cathy Richardson, as well as School Committee members Betsy Murphy, Dan O'Connell, Joe Wilkie and Matt Sheehan, have health insurance from other sources, and declined to take advantage of the town-offered benefit while in office, Vandal said.
School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara and Selectmen Joe DiRocco and Tony Archinski receive health-insurance coverage via their town retirement benefits. McNamara was a school teacher, DiRocco was fire chief, and Archinski was a police lieutenant, respectively.
Town health insurance for a board member costs taxpayers about $15,000 annually for the family plan, or $7,000 for individual coverage. The insured party pays 17 percent of the premiums, and the town pays the remaining 83 percent, Vandal said.
Vandal said only two other individuals currently receive annual health-insurance coverage from the town: Shaw, a selectman for 24 years; and Florida resident Kathleen DiTillio, widow of former Selectman Jack DiTillio.
Shaw said Cox is entitled to the insurance benefit and that the attacks are outrageous and unwarranted.
"Selectman Cox is legally entitled to take it, so he did," said Shaw, owner of Shaw Farm in Dracut. "I don't know how you find fault with that. People should not lose sight of the fact that it isn't just Bob Cox. There have been other people as well who have taken it over the years when they're eligible. Same thing applies in the city of Lowell and many other municipalities.
"I served for 29 years in town government, 24 of those on the Board of Selectmen, and never took the health insurance," Shaw added. "In my last year, they told me I had earned a retirement benefit. So when your employer tells you that, you're not going to say no.
"And given the wide spectrum of issues that people in Dracut ought to be concerned about, for people to be fooled into thinking that this is the basis of how they ought to decide who to vote for selectman -- shame on them, if they fall for that."
In response to an inquiry from The Sun, Town Clerk Kathy Graham said town voting records show Cox has voted in every election since 2000, with the lone exception being the special election on the override in November. Cox's wife voted, but he didn't, Graham said.
Cox said his wife drove them to the parking lot of the Moses Greeley Parker Library on Election Night, but he remained in the passenger seat upon arrival, feeling too ill to get out of the vehicle and enter the polls.
"I get vertigo," Cox said. "It's no joke. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Motion-sickness pills are the only thing you can take that can help it. So we decided to stop at CVS and get some pills, and I'd wait for the vertigo to subside and go back and vote. But in this case, by the time I felt I could drive, the polls had closed."
Cox said he intended to vote "no" on the override -- a position he said he is not hiding but chose not to trumpet at board meetings or around town out of respect for Town Meeting.
"Did I come out and beat my chest to say the override should not pass? No, I did not," Cox said, "and the reason is because the town charter specifically states 'the legislative body of the town of Dracut is Town Meeting,' period. Town Meeting voted to put it on the ballot. I thought the right thing to do was let the democratic process take its course."
Cox added: "Quite frankly, nobody ever asked me what my position was, or I would've told them I'm going to vote 'no' but I'm not going to go out and work against it because I don't think that's right."
Cox is a Lowell native and one of two sons of the late City Councilor John E. Cox, who served in the 1960s. His brother is former Lowell state Rep. and City Manager John F. Cox.
In 1984, Cox moved to Dracut and built a home for his young family. He worked in transportation at UPS and Airborne Express for more than a decade and later was a consumer-protection inspector with the state Attorney General's Office until that program ended in 2009. He opened Coyle's in 2002.
Cox won his first elected seat, as a Dracut selectman in 2005.
"I speak from my heart, and I vote with my conscience. I don't play politics. I never have," Cox said then, and reiterated this week.
Cox's three opponents in the selectmen's race -- Ted Kosiavelon, Alison Hughes and Tami Dristiliaris -- declined to speak on the issue of Cox's town health-insurance benefit. Instead, each said he or she wished to stay focused on the election campaign and winning the support of voters.
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