DRACUT — Tensions on the Board of Selectmen flared Tuesday night as the members discussed the town’s relationship with Dracut Access Television, the nonprofit organization that broadcasts on three local public access channels.
The issue appeared on the agenda at the request of Selectman Joseph DiRocco Jr., who asked for information about the town’s authority over and agreement with the organization.
According to Town Counsel James Hall, Dracut holds a contract with Comcast to offer public access programming for the town. Under that agreement, ratepayers are assessed a certain amount on their cable bill to support the public access channels, and the town has the option to provide the programming itself or to designate an access provider to do so.
But Hall said that though Dracut Access Television has been acting as the town’s access provider and receiving quarterly funds from Comcast as a result, no contract was ever signed outlining the terms of that relationship. He said that a potential agreement was drafted in 2017, but that the process was never completed.
Hall said he would recommend negotiating a contract in the “best interest” of both parties, and said based on the previous proposal, the agreement would indemnify the town against any lawsuits brought against Dracut Access Television or any of its hosts.
During the course of the discussion, DiRocco took aim at “The Dracut Connection,” a political talk show distributed by Dracut Access Television. He questioned whether the town would currently be liable for any potential legal action filed against the hosts of the show, and said in the absence of a contract, he sees it as the board’s responsibility to provide oversight.
He said he was not suggesting censoring the show, but that he thinks the show needs to “be dealing more in what the truth is.”
“The ‘Connection,’ in my mind, all it does is degrade people. It goes after families, it doesn’t care who they hurt. I mean, it’s the same thing over and over again. I don’t see the benefit to the community or the rate payers or any of that,” DiRocco said. “I don’t think John Zimini, (Brian) Bond and (Phil) Thibault, in my opinion, are doing the town any favor. They’re fighting their own battle. I think they’re using it — in my opinion — I think they’re using it as a weapon. At some point that’s gotta end, because I don’t think it’s beneficial to the community.”
Zimini, Bond and Thibault are hosts of the Dracut Connection. Zimini is a former selectman and Thibault is seeking election to the Board of Selectmen in Monday’s election.
Selectman Tami Dristiliaris took issue with DiRocco’s focus on “The Dracut Connection” and questioned why he was “bashing” the organization as a whole. She noted Dracut Access Television’s role in providing educational programming and mentorship for children and adults.
“I think that DATV is such an asset to our community and I think we should really let them function. They’ve done a very good job. Anybody can go on and have a program,” Dristiliaris said. “You can have a program about let’s bash ‘Dracut Connection’ if you’d like, Mr. DiRocco, but I’m sorry, people have a right to their opinions and as long as they’re not hateful and as long as they’re not untrue, they’re not gonna get sued. “
The program has been the focus of local controversy in the past. In 2016, a couple who volunteered with Dracut Access Television filed a harassment complaint against Bond, one of the co-hosts, after he threatened to kill them on air. At the time, acting Police Chief Neil Ouellette said the department took “appropriate action” to resolve the issue.
Later in the meeting, Hall clarified that were the town to enter into a contract with Dracut Access Television, it would not provide oversight over the programming itself, noting that the organization’s First Amendment rights are clear cut. He said such a contract would fall under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30B, which governs procurement of goods and services, and said the town would need to release a request for proposals to solicit bids from potential access providers.
Selectman Alison Hughes said she supports Dracut Access Television and sees the benefit of its programming, but she understands the need for a contract to protect the town against liability. Hall said the contract drafted in 2017 is a standard agreement that would not be difficult to finalize.
“From what I’m, and you can correct me Mr. Hall if I’m wrong, reading between the lines, is we do need some sort of agreement just to cover the town for liability, and again because the contract is ultimately between Comcast and the town,” she said. “So it’s kind of like we’re just missing one piece of the contract.”
DiRocco asked that an item be placed on the next meeting’s agenda to vote on requesting a financial report from Dracut Access Television and to discuss the town’s Cable Advisory Committee. In an emailed statement Wednesday, Gary Meuse, executive director of Dracut Access Television, indicated that the organization would be open to negotiating a contract with the town.
“Dracut Access Television, Inc. (DATV) has had a strong, long-standing relationship with the town of Dracut and we have worked very hard to build a Community Television & Media Center that the town of Dracut and its residents can be proud of as we work with our member Producers to produce high-quality, hyper local programming about and for the town of Dracut,” Meuse wrote. “Since the town of Dracut never previously approached DATV to negotiate an agreement/contract with them, we’d be happy to do so going forward.”