Dracut hires counsel to review procurement practices

Interim Town Manager Ann Vandal speaks at Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting about the need for special counsel to review procurement practices. (SUN/Meg McIntyre)
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DRACUT — As the Attorney General’s office continues to probe purchases for a recent town project, Dracut is taking steps to address concerns around the town’s procurement process.

The Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday night to retain the Wellesley-based law firm Miyares and Harrington as special counsel to assist with “miscellaneous procurement issues.”

Ann Vandal, interim town manager, said during her report that the town plans to hire a dedicated procurement officer, but until that position is filled, she recommended hiring the firm to go over contracts and clarify gray areas in the procurement law.

Procurement has been a hot topic around town in recent months, with former Town Manager Jim Duggan resigning abruptly last month amid mounting criticism around his handling of town procurement practices. That month, Attorney General Maura Healey also began reviewing a recent project to construct a security fence around the Dracut police headquarters. A company in Hooksett, N.H., was selected for the job, despite the fact that a Billerica firm submitted a bid for more than $8,000 less.

Before Duggan resigned, he appointed Human Resources Director Christine Lindberg as the procurement officer. Going forward, Vandal said she envisions a joint procurement and grant writing position.

“There’s a lot of good things happening as far as the procurement is concerned. There’s a few that we have issues with, but there’s also a lot that we don’t,” Vandal said Tuesday night. “So that’s gotta get out there where it’s not as if it’s systemic and every single thing is an issue, because that’s not the case.”

Town Counsel James A. Hall said the firm has attorneys who are “experts in the field” of procurement. He said that while he could take on the work of reviewing past practices and straightening out the issues, it would take more time and money for him to do so because he is not as familiar with the intricacies of the law as this firm’s attorneys are.

“Their idea wasn’t to wait to see what the Attorney General has to say; they’re ready to have boots on the ground to move forward to get us right up to speed,” Hall said.

Selectman Tami Dristiliaris asked how much retaining the firm is expected to cost, but Hall said officials don’t have an estimate because they don’t yet know the breadth and scope of services the town will need. Archinski questioned why the scope of services wasn’t clearly defined in the proposed contract.

“Quite frankly, I just don’t know exactly what it is that we’re paying them $275 an hour to do,” Archinski said.

According to Vandal, the firm’s services will be used at her discretion and she envisions that requests from department heads would go through her. She emphasized that there are contracts the town needs to draw up as soon as possible that should be reviewed by the attorneys, and said that as time goes on, she expects the town to use the firm less and less frequently.

The board ultimately voted 4-1 to approve the contract. Archinski voted against the motion.

“I think it will go a long way with the AG’s office as well, us hiring someone to do it,” Selectman Joseph DiRocco, Jr. said.

Other actions the selectmen took Tuesday night included:

  • Approving a common victualler’s license for MAAFO TChophouse, a new restaurant set to open at 1734 Lakeview Ave, Unit #8
  • Approving a special permit amendment allowing the Four Oaks Country Club to add a bridal suite, event kitchen and storage space and relocate the Bar and Grille at 80 Meadow Creek Drive to another part of the property
  • Approving a special permit amendment allowing Mammoth Fire Alarms to relocate an antenna for fire alarm and emergency reporting to the rear of the building at 401 Broadway Road
  • Accepting an application for a special permit submitted by Massbiolytics, a “cannabis testing lab” requesting to open on Commercial Drive, with the permit to be discussed and considered at a later date
  • Approving the continued use of a single town tax rate
  • Accepting a donation of a surplus truck from the Dracut Water Supply District to the Dracut School Department
  • Approving a temporary outdoor alcohol license for a fundraiser Sunday at Tavern on the Line restaurant
  • Approving licenses for 2020, including alcoholic beverages licenses, common victualler licenses, amusement video machine licenses, video poker machine licenses, pool table licenses, juke box licenses and used car dealer licenses
  • Approving an employment contract with the interim town manager and setting her salary at $175,000