DRACUT -- Stopping the stipends stands.
Despite the questions some residents have raised regarding the way in which the Finance Committee on June 2 went about passing its 4-0 recommendation and Town Meeting floor amendment to discontinue paying annual $2,000 stipends to each selectman and School Committee member and $550 to the town moderator, the 126-121 Town Meeting vote was legally binding, Finance Director and Treasurer Ann Vandal confirmed Friday.
It means that, as of July, stipend checks will no longer be mailed to the five members of the Board of Selectmen and School Committee and Town Moderator Gaudette, Vandal said.
Gaudette, appearing as a guest on the WCAP radio show hosted by former Selectman Warren Shaw, questioned whether the Finance Committee properly posted its discussion about stipends in advance on the agenda for the meeting held an hour before Town Meeting on June 2.
Finance Committee Chairman George Dristiliaris reported that he and three other members voted unanimously, 4-0, to recommend passage of a town budget amendment to discontinue paying stipends to elected officials, which Dristiliaris put in writing and submitted on the floor of Town Meeting.
"The town has far more pressing needs at this time than paying $2,000 stipends to elected officials," Dristiliaris said Friday, repeating the argument he made at Town Meeting three weeks earlier.
Shaw described the Finance Committee and Dristiliaris' tactics to end the stipends as an "ambush" that will negatively impact the town.
"This amount of money is small, and taking it away will only achieve one thing: to make it less desirable for the average person to run for office," said Shaw, the owner of Shaw Farm, who served as a Dracut selectman for 24 years. "That meets the objective of the people who want to control the town with their own friends.
"Anybody that has plenty of money, those who may have managed to land a plush political job or that have been successful in business, they don't necessarily have to justify their investment of time because their costs are covered," Shaw said. "But take away the stipend from somebody that has to work for a week's pay, who is just concerned about their community and tax bill, that person is now going to find it hard to justify the time commitment."
Dristiliaris disagreed with Shaw on that point.
"Other boards don't receive stipends -- they're not 'elitist' -- and they run just fine," Dristiliaris said. "To say it will keep people from running, I don't buy that argument at all. That's just nonsense."
On Town Meeting floor, School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara and Selectman Joe DiRocco spoke in favor of keeping the stipends. McNamara said he and other board members donate the money to local charities annually.
DiRocco called the stipends "a small token of appreciation" that covers some of the driving and other expenses all board members incur.
Former nine-year Selectman John Zimini addressed Town Meeting in favor of ending the stipends, arguing that the total yearly amount of $20,500 would be better spent on the town's schools.
Shaw scoffed at Zimini's remarks.
"How shameful that this is all that particular group of people can come up with to talk about regarding the future of the town -- the few dollars that would be spent on compensating their elected officials," Shaw said. "There are so many more important, long-term conversations that we should be talking about. It makes this stipends issue the ultimate red herring."
In a letter to the editor of The Sun, Selectman Tony Archinski decried the Finance Committee-orchestrated stripping of the stipends as "sneaky, petty, mean-spirited backroom politics."
"Make no mistake about it, folks, this was a political move, decided when selectmen were in another part of the building, assuring the Finance Committee members that the amendment to eliminate the stipend could be 'secret' right up until the last minute," Archinski wrote. "Finance Committee member George Dristiliaris, who offered the amendment, has been boasting all week that 'even my wife (Selectman Tami Dristiliaris) didn't know about it!' So much for open government."
George Dristiliaris said Friday he is composing a letter to The Sun editor to respond to Archinski's published comments on the stipend vote.
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