DRACUT -- Sitting between one selectman who favored amending the town charter to make Dracut's police and fire chiefs a bit stronger, and another selectman who advocated leaving the strong town manager's powers as is, board Chairwoman Cathy Richardson found herself in the strongest position of all Tuesday night.
Richardson cast the deciding vote as a divided Board of Selectmen voted, 2-1, not to approve a a charter amendment proposed by Deputy Police Chief David Chartrand and Fire Chief David Brouillette that would have forced incoming Town Manager James Duggan to OK whatever new hires the chiefs presented to fill vacancies in their departments.
Selectman John Zimini joined Richardson in voting not to approve the amendment, while Selectman Joe DiRocco, a retired Dracut fire chief, voted in favor of it. Selectman Tony Archinski, a retired Dracut police lieutenant, removed himself from the vote, explaining that he wanted to safeguard against being accused of a conflict of interest, as he is now employed as a regional recruiter by the police patrolman's union, which could benefit financially from such a Dracut charter change. Also removing himself from the vote was Selectman Bob Cox, whose son is an active duty Dracut police officer.
"What I see happening here is the chiefs want to know their contributions are appreciated, and they are," said Richardson prior to the vote. "That said, it's important for everyone to know the new town manager is coming in with a wealth of experience and is someone to be respected and listened to.
The board's vote put an end to months of discussion and debate on Brouillette's original request to "clarify" the language of the town charter pertaining to the strong manager's power to hire, fire, promote and discipline his department personnel. Weeks later in the charter review process, Brouillette was joined by Chartrand in arguing that Dracut's strong-manager form of government conflicted with the "strong chiefs" law passed by the state legislature in 1957.
By making Dracut's manager the "appointing authority" within their departments when the town charter was revised in 1986, Brouillette and Chartrand told selectmen these powers should rightfully be returned to them in keeping with the 1957 law, so they could run their public-safety departments professionally and without "political interference," the chiefs argued.
After hearing from Town Counsel Jim Hall, who cited case law showing the 1986 town charter's strong-manager wording "trumped" the 1957 state law, Chartrand and Brouillette entered Tuesday night's public hearing and final board vote with "compromise" language regarding the strong- manager section of the charter. Chartrand's proposed revised charter language would have specifically required to Duggan to accept any new hiring recommendation made by the police and fire chiefs, backed up by "sound and sufficient reasons" that the chiefs would supply.
Zimini vehemently opposed Chartrand's proposed charter amendment, arguing that Duggan's "hands would be tied" by such language. At one point during the discussion, Zimini and Brouillette engaged in a one-on-one debate about whether the charter change was called for.
During the public-input segment of the hearing prior to the vote, the Dracut police supervisors and patrolmen's union attorney, Gary Nolan, and firefighters union attorney, Paul Hynes, spoke in opposition to the chiefs' proposed charter amendment, as did two Dracut firefighters, who challenged the sagacity of their chief's argument.
"In 18 years that I've worked for this fire department, there was never a gray area. I knew the town manager was the appointing authority, the man who was going to decide my fate," said firefighter Chris Coalter. "He's never gone against the hiring recommendations of any of the chiefs, and I would believe that a new town manager coming in is certainly going to put a lot of faith into what the chiefs in these two departments are going to recommend to him. Let's give him the authority to do the job you hired him to do."
Based on advice from Hall, Zimini determined the surest way to kill the proposed charter change in advance of Town Meeting in June was to make a motion to approve Chartrand's wording, before casting a vote -- in opposition to his own motion -- "not to approve" the charter change, Zimini explained.
After hearing Zimini's explanation of the motion, DiRocco opted not to second it. To advance Zimini's motion to the final vote, Richardson followed Hall's advice to hand her chairman's gavel to vice-chairman DiRocco, made the second and cast the deciding vote to nullify the charter change in the 2-1 vote..
DiRocco's earlier motion to table the discussion and vote on Chartrand's proposed charter amendment for several months until after the May 5 election failed for lack of a second. Upon DiRocco's making his motion to delay, Zimini questioned DiRocco about whether the purpose of the motion was to cut him out of the decision making process on the charter, as Zimini is not running for re-election.
"I would rather see new manager and new members on the board weigh in on it," DiRocco said. "I know the chiefs put a lot of work into it, and I agree with it We should put it off for six months."
Such a delay would have been unfair to those interested parties whose fates hung in the balance, however, argued Zimini, referring to Duggan and about two dozen rank-and-file police officers and firefighters who attended the hearing.
"The bottom line is we need to make sure our manager stays strong," Zimini said.
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