DRACUT -- A divided Board of Selectmen is scheduled to hold a final debate and vote Tuesday on whether to strip incoming Town Manager James Duggan's authority to hire, fire, promote and discipline Dracut's Police and Fire Department personnel.
The requested change to the Town Charter is being initiated jointly by Fire Chief David Brouillette and Deputy Police Chief David Chartrand.
Selectman Joe DiRocco, a former Dracut fire chief, supports the change, while Selectman Tony Archinski, a former Dracut police lieutenant, opposes it, as do Gary Nolan, an attorney who represents Dracut's police supervisors and patrolman's union, and Paul Hynes, an attorney who represents the town's firefighters union.
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Nolan and Hynes cautioned the board that the change could lead to higher legal costs.
They cited as examples the only two instances in Massachusetts in which ultimate control was granted to its chiefs -- to the fire chief in Chelmsford, and police chief in Hudson. Both municipalities have been afflicted with an inordinate number of costly lawsuits filed by police and fire personnel whose disciplinary cases and appeals have spiraled out of control, the attorneys said.
The Town Charter's "strong town manager" form of government was installed in 1986. Brouillette and Chartrand contend that the manager's current status as the "appointing authority" in civil-service matters has enabled a nonpublic-safety professional to potentially interfere, or "play politics with," departmental operations and hiring decisions.
Brouillette and Chartrand asked selectmen to place a proposed charter amendment before voters at Town Meeting in June that would have the town abide by the "Strong Chiefs Law/Chapter 48" passed by the state Legislature in 1957.
Brouillette acknowledged that Dracut's "strong town manager" system produced no problems during the lengthy tenure of former Town Manager Dennis Piendak. However, he said there is no guarantee of the same in the future.
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"Are we running our departments without interference or not?" Brouillette asked selectmen during a recent public hearing on the issue. "We had Dennis for 28 years, but he was one of a kind."
Town Counsel Jim Hall said he has researched court cases from both sides dating back to the enactment of the 1957 Strong Chiefs Law. He said the "strong town manager" law takes precedence.
"Our charter that was passed in 1986 trumps the Strong Chiefs Law," Hall said. "The way it works is that whatever was passed last rules. There were other towns that had this question, and the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the town charter rules. There are numerous other powers that are still intact under the Strong Chiefs Act, except for the power to hire and fire.
Nolan told the board that Piendak, acting in his strong-manager role as a mediator and appeals judge in personnel disciplinary cases, saved the town hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential litigation over three decades.
"I've been involved in some pretty public, messy cases that were resolved because your town manager stepped in and resolved them," Nolan said. "He got people back to work. He assured that there were no lawsuits. He got releases of liability. It happened multiple times."
Nolan cited legal costs in Hudson, where the fire chief has total control. "The Boston Globe did an article a few years ago that stated in a five-year period, (Hudson) spent $350,000 in civil-service attorney fees. And I say this from a perspective of somebody who would benefit if you change this. The people who would benefit from this change are the lawyers. Good business for me, it's bad business for you."
Similarly, Hynes warned selectmen that Chelmsford opened a legal can of worms by giving the fire chief sole responsibility over disciplinary decisions within his department.
"It does not work in Chelmsford," Hynes said. "There are numerous cases pending at the Division of Labor Relations. There are grievances going to arbitration because you don't have a professional town manager reviewing personnel decisions of the fire chief. You have one person making the decision, and then you have the same person reviewing that decision, as the appeals hearing officer, to determine if he got it right in the first place."
Hynes said if Dracut adopts the strong-chief amendment to its charter, it will force the union firefighters to redo their collective-bargaining agreement.
"The current charter provides a system of checks and balances," he said. "Dracut's system is working. Let your new town manager continue working as your prior town manager did for 30 years."
Chartrand, however, insisted that the Strong Chiefs amendment is needed.
"The chiefs need the ability to preserve the process that has been in effect, to run their departments without political influences," Chartrand said.
Archinski said Friday that he hopes a majority of selectmen will stand with him Tuesday night in declining the chiefs' request to take power from Duggan.
"We've been doing this for 30 years, without ever having a problem," Archinski said. "Why fix it if it isn't broken? I like having an extra layer of review in disciplinary and promotional cases. Many grievances in discipline cases are mitigated at the town-manager level."
It also would be unfair to Duggan to have enticed him to Dracut in large part because of its "strong manager" form of government, only to change his working conditions upon his start, Archinski said.
"I am also fundamentally against giving complete authority to these chiefs without having any accountability," Archinski said. "Strong Chiefs legislation pretty much gives life tenure to these chiefs, and short of an indictment, there's not much we can do if we don't like the way the chiefs run their department."
Approaching Tuesday's vote, Selectman Bob Cox and Chairwoman Cathy Richardson had not yet firmly indicated how they were planning to vote on the Strong Chiefs proposal. Selectman John Zimini appeared to side with Archinski, making several comments during the board's charter discussion indicating he opposed "pecking away" at Dracut's strong town manager form of government.
The board's special hearing and vote on the topic is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at Harmony Hall.
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