By Amaris Castillo
Town Meeting on Monday rejected an article that sought to adopt Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 33, Section 59, under which public employees are fully paid while they fulfill their military service obligations through drills and training.
The vote, taken up by secret ballot, was 146 against and 112 in favor of Article 45.
Justin George, a firefighter who also serves as a National Guard medic, was behind the controversial article. The vote came after nearly a half hour of comments from speakers ranging from Selectman Tony Archinski, who was for the article, to Selectman Joseph DiRocco Jr., who was against it. Fire Chief David Brouillette and several residents also spoke.
"If you don't agree with this and you want to vote no, then vote no -- that's your right," George told the audience before the vote as he stood at a podium in the Lester G. Richardson Center for the Performing Arts at Dracut High School. "That's the point, just like it's my right to petition to have this accepted and to vote yes."
George said he is retiring from the National Guard within a year and stressed, as he had before, that if the article passes, he would donate his military pay to the town's Department of Veterans Services.
"This administration has a great concern that town employees that are retired from military -- once this law is adopted -- will create some massive influx to re-enlist in the military, which is laughable and insulting," George said.
George said approving the article would be residents' way of thanking and supporting those serving in the military.
"This is not for me," he said. "This is for our future town employees because if there's a financial hardship, you're not going to have a National Guard. You're not going to have a military. This is a burden on anybody that's in the town and that's in military service."
Town Manager Jim Duggan said he had to look at the article's impact to the town. He said there was no question that everyone in the auditorium had a sincere appreciation and respect for the men and women serving in the armed forces.
"I am just saying that this has the opportunity to be an extremely, extremely expensive direction in which we go," Duggan said, adding that he respects George although they disagree on the issue.
After the vote, George, in a text message, said, "It's unfortunate that the residents of Dracut believed what the cost of Article 45 would be from the same management that miscalculated a new station build by 1 million dollars." He was referring to the town's new fire station.
Duggan said there was never a miscalculation.
"It was all a matter of what I believed the residents were willing to accept as a debt exclusion," he said.
After Town Meeting, Duggan said he appreciated residents "recognizing the potential challenges that we would be faced with in the event that the article passed."
"As I said during Town Meeting, I like Justin. I respect him," Duggan said. "I disagree with him on this, and I look forward to continuing to work with him."
In a recent interview, George said he has been harassed by both Duggan and Brouillette, and was placed on paid administrative leave in early August because he continued to pursue the Town Meeting article. He told The Valley Dispatch his career is over and that he was still pursuing the article on principle.
Duggan has flatly denied the allegation and said George's behavior and performance are completely separate from the article.
An outside firm earlier this year determined that Dracut has appropriately applied a law aiming to close the pay gap for town employees in military service.
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @Amaris Castillo. Her email address is email@example.com.