The troubling signs that pointed to Dracut Town Manager Jim Duggan’s exit could no longer be ignored.
Duggan, who took over as town manager in the spring of 2014, replacing 28-year office holder Dennis Piendak, resigned Oct. 9 amid escalating turmoil in Town Hall, including his perceived mishandling of town procurement procedures.
The final straws occurred last month. That’s when Attorney General Maura Healey began reviewing a decision to select a Hooksett, New Hampshire, firm to construct a security fence around the Dracut Police Department, despite a bid from a local firm that was $8,000 less. Hooksett is also the hometown of Dracut Police Chief Peter Bartlett.
And while Duggan had taken steps to correct the town’s procurement process by delegating a procurement compliance officer and instituting other procedures, the perceived damage had been done.
Duggan was also criticized in September by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2586, over concerns of the town’s management of firefighters. He was also the target of more than 100 firefighters who picketed outside Town Hall before a Board of Selectmen meeting on Sept. 24.
All this stemmed in part due to the town’s lengthy contract negotiations with firefighters, which had yet to be settled.
This followed Duggan’s decision to place Dracut Firefighter Justin George, a National Guard medic, on paid administrative leave back in August of 2018 for what Duggan described as George’s “uncharacteristic behavior.”
In late June, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause to believe the town of Dracut discriminated against George because of his disability, a claim the town vigorously disputed.
Duggan also found himself embroiled in another high-profile legal entanglement with the town’s other public-safety department. Deputy Police Chief David Chartrand filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Duggan, seeking redress for “the unlawful and unconstitutional targeted bullying and retaliatory misconduct” of the town manager. Chartrand seeks a trial by jury and $1.8 million in punitive and compensatory damages.
This suit came just months after the state’s Civil Service Commission ruled 3-2 in favor of Chartrand in an appeal of Duggan’s decision to suspend him in 2016 for two weeks without pay, following a civil service inquiry into his handling of documents in a Dracut lieutenant’s personnel file.
The cumulative effect of all these issues pushed the Board of Selectmen to act.
“He obviously had lost confidence of the majority of the board,” said Selectman Tony Archinski.
However, we believe most selectmen would agree that Duggan helped reinvigorate Dracut’s commercial tax base by recruiting major businesses — including The Arbors at Dracut, an assisted- living community, and Circle Health Dracut, a new outpatient center.
These last few tumultuous months shouldn’t obscure the strides the town has made over the last five-plus years, including enhanced communication and cooperation with the School Department.
Agents of change, as was Duggan’s charge from selectmen, can cause resentment and retaliation, the effects of which no doubt played a part in his departure.
Now that Assistant Town Manager/Finance Director Ann Vandal has been appointed interim town manager, a new town manager must be selected within 120 days.
Reverting back the can’t-do, us-against-them bad old days, when lack of finances pitted established town residents against education-conscious newcomers, isn’t an option.
Dracut’s next manager must continue to expand economic development, and somehow navigate the turbulence of town politics.
Those without thick skin and calloused elbows need not apply.