Friday, March 27, 2015

To Leaders Who Just Don't Seem to Lead

By Bill Gouveia

            As a columnist commenting on local affairs, you sometimes struggle to find things that might be interesting to readers.  The last few weeks has definitely not been one of those times.

There has been a lot happening on the local political scene lately.  Elections are nearing in most area communities, and there will be a few interesting races and some very important and controversial ballot questions to be decided in various municipalities.

            But it seems right now might be a good time to highlight a few situations in the surrounding area and try to put them into perspective.  Although quite frankly, it’s more than a little difficult to view some of them without shaking your head in wonderment.

            In North Attleboro, government continues to perform in a baffling and contradictory manner.  Just this week 71 members of the Representative Town Meeting voted once again to save their own political positions and deny the people they serve the right to vote on changing their own government.  If nothing else, that is consistent.

            But at least one RTM member urged the body to do so in part because the cost of changing to a mayor/council format might be excessive and a burden on the taxpayers.  Yet at the same time, the budget town officials are supporting is contingent on a $4 million tax increase they are asking voters to approve.  You know, so they can continue that super-successful and inexpensive system they currently operate. 

            RTM member Bart Steele said, “Not one person has come forward to me for the mayoral form of government.”  He seems to forget that 974 people cast ballots two years ago saying they wanted to vote on exactly that.  Apparently they didn’t realize they needed to ask Mr. Steele and other RTM members personally rather than by voting.  All that is inconsistency, not to mention hypocrisy. 

            In Foxboro, the ill-advised campaign by Town Clerk Bob Cutler to try and win tenure continues to create issues where there were previously none.  It was bad enough he claimed it was necessary to provide job security for an elected position where no incumbent has even faced a challenge in more than 30 years. 

But then it also helped create a situation where his good friend the fire chief violated campaign laws by gathering signatures in uniform from on-duty subordinates for the person who technically coordinates his ethics training.  You just can’t make this stuff up.

            But the strangest story may be in Attleboro, where city councilor Jonathan Weydt has had a fascinating month or two.  He seems to be on a desperate mission to end his own relatively brief and unspectacular political career, and might be succeeding.

            Weydt was cited by police for driving his very young daughter to a local supermarket in his truck without any type of child safety seat as required by law.  Faced with the possibility of bad publicity and a whopping $30 fine, the veteran councilor allegedly tried to use his connections to get the officer on the scene to let him off.

            According to the police report Weydt admitted he drove his daughter illegally, something he later publicly denied.  The officer who issued the citation went on to say Weydt did not cooperate.  He said the two-term councilor related he knew various people at the court house and in the police department “seemingly in order to intimidate or impress the officer and to sway the outcome of the officer's investigation” according to the statement.

            A few weeks later Weydt became an internet sensation when he was recorded “flipping the bird” to a fellow councilor during a public meeting where the topic was marijuana dispensary regulations.  He later apologized through one media outlet, saying “Somebody said a couple things I didn't like, sometimes I put my heart in my sleeve, this time my finger was dangling from the end of it."

            Hard to ignore a heartfelt apology like that one. 

            There are a lot of good and selfless leaders in the Greater Attleboro area who do their jobs in an effective and cooperative manner.  It is too bad our attention is often drawn to those who sometimes act like it is all about them rather than about the people they represent.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local elected official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Foxboro Chief Has No Excuse

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, March 23, 2015.

By Bill Gouveia

Roger Hatfield has established a solid reputation as Foxboro's fire chief.  He is a well-respected and popular figure in his community.

But recently the veteran department head admitted he violated Massachusetts election laws, saying he was unaware at least one existed.  Chief Hatfield circulated petitions requesting tenure for his “great friend” Town Clerk Bob Cutler to on-duty firefighters inside the Public Safety Building, seeking their signatures to help place the matter on the ballot.  This is expressly illegal.

When it was brought to his attention, Town Manager Bill Keegan reacted swiftly.  He told Hatfield of the violation, which he called unintentional but serious.  He also immediately sent out notice to all Foxboro’s municipal employees reminding them of what they should already know.

“You can’t mix politics and administration.  There are strict limitations on political activity while on duty or in uniform”, Keegan said.

Chief Hatfield admitted the offense, saying, “I probably should not have done that.”  He was remorseful and apologetic, but prior to speaking with the town manager said, “I never thought it was inappropriate to do it in uniform.  I honestly don’t know there is a rule against it.”

And herein lies what some see as the real problem with this situation.  

It can be fairly argued Chief Hatfield should have known of this pretty basic law.  He is no rookie.  He has been chief in Foxboro for almost seven years.  During that time he has received ethics training as mandated by state law.  The individual he was in effect campaigning for is the individual in charge of overseeing that training.  Frankly, there is no valid excuse for the Chief not being aware.

But let’s assume for a moment there is.  After all, no one can possibly be up-to-date on every single regulation and law.  The chief is a firefighter, not a lawyer.  Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say he did not realize his activity was illegal.

It was still very wrong.  For the chief to solicit those signatures from on-duty firefighters inside the Public Safety building while in uniform is irresponsible, even if it were legal.  It shows incredibly bad judgment.  It calls into question the chief’s commitment to his administrative duties.  Frankly, it is either really dumb or really arrogant.

There should be no political activity conducted by town employees while on the taxpayer’s dime.  Most private businesses frown on employees doing anything but company work while on duty, and public entities should demand the same.  While town employees are perfectly entitled to sign petitions and/or campaign on behalf of candidates, they should not do so while working.

And supervisors or administrators are supposed to prevent that kind of thing from happening, not encourage it or do it themselves.  That is a basic tenant of being in charge of people.  It is not a law, or a regulation, or some complicated concept.  It is simple common sense.

Chief Hatfield should have known “there is a rule against it”.  In fact, he should have been enforcing it as well as following it.  It is his responsibility to make sure the men and women under his command are doing the town’s business and giving no other appearance on town time.  Not because of any law, but because it is sound management. 

Politics is an inevitable part of every department head’s job.  It is impossible to totally and completely avoid them while working for any community.

But an administrator taking political petitions to subordinates while on duty, in uniform and inside the workplace, is more than a simple mistake.  Such acts are deliberate and wrong.  They could be seen as coercive or intimidating.  Legal or not, they should never occur in a public workplace. 

There is little doubt Chief Hatfield regrets the incident and is sorry.  And there should be no grand overreaction to what happened.

But neither should it be easily dismissed or quickly forgotten.  This is serious stuff.  The town manager has taken steps to make sure this does not happen again, and that is good.

But it happened in the first place, and that should be of deep concern in Foxboro.  It could speak to a larger problem and a dangerous attitude.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Senators Should be Ashamed of Actions

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, March 13, 2015
By Bill Gouveia


            This is addressed to the 47 Republican members of the United States Senate who recently signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran.

            Dear Senators:

            You should be ashamed of yourselves.  You are an embarrassment to your states, your country, your party and the people you represent.  Your behavior is un-American, bordering on treasonous and treacherous, and damaging to the government you allegedly serve.  And frankly, those are the kindest things I can find to say about what you have done.

            You alleged leaders wrote a letter to a foreign government undermining the President of the Unites States.  You did this while your President and Secretary of State were engaged in negotiations with that government.  You put party politics ahead of our country, and tried to disguise it as standing up for America.

            The topic being negotiated is irrelevant to this conversation.  It does not matter if you agree with what is being discussed.  There are legitimate avenues for you to express support or opposition to this process, and you have stepped beyond them.  You can disagree with the President’s stance on these negotiations at the top of your voice on national television for hours if you like.

            But you communicated directly with foreign leaders who you in the past have (justifiably) accused of sponsoring terrorism.  You flat-out told them the President could not guarantee the government of the Unites States would stand by his actions.  You did so while publicly proclaiming you were just making sure these leaders understood how American government really works.

            It seems they understand it just fine, Senators.  You are the ones who apparently don’t get it.

            You have invited others to disrespect your President, your government, and yourselves.  You have made it appear the leader of the free world does not speak for the people who twice elected him.  You have overstepped your bounds, gone beyond your authority, and made yourselves look petty and foolish.

            In your letter you used the words “Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.”  A mere executive agreement?  Like that means nothing?  Like the word of the President of the United States means less because the prevailing political party in Congress does not agree with him?  That disgusts me, Senators.

            Criticize the President all you want.  Slam his actions, his methods, his philosophies.  Complain about his politics and where he is leading the country.  This system of government which you appear intent on undermining gives you that right.

            But the office of President of the United States deserves better than this.  Regardless of who occupies the White House, we are only as good as the word of our President.  That individual carries on his or her shoulders the responsibility to speak for a nation that was founded upon the basic principles of democracy.

            Vice President Joe Biden put it best the other day when he said:  “This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that our commander-in-chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments — a message that is as false as it is dangerous.  Honorable people can disagree over policy. But this is no way to make America safer or stronger.”

            However, you 47 senators did achieve one pretty impressive accomplishment.  You managed to make the leadership of Iran appear reasonable and rational.

            Iranian response to your letter was exactly as it should be.  They recognized it for the desperately political act it so obviously was.  Iran’s Foreign Minister said, “We believe the letter has no legal value and is propaganda.”  And he was right.

            If this were a group of Democratic senators undermining the authority of a Republican President, I would feel exactly the same.  In fact, I was angry when well-known individual Democrats deliberately undermined past Presidents.

            But this is far more outrageous.  This is a near-majority of the US Senate deliberately devaluing the power and authority of executive orders issued by the President.  It is nothing short of an attack on the very foundation of American democracy.

            You Republican senators can try and claim the high ground here, but the end does not justify the means.  Shame on you.  When you disrespect the office of the President to a foreign nation, you disrespect America.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Tenure For Elected Clerk Not A Good Idea

This column originally appeared In The Sun Chronicle on Monday, March 9, 2015.
By Bill Gouveia

            Bob Cutler is the elected town clerk in Foxboro.  He would like to remain in that elected post for a long time.

But if it’s all the same to Foxboro citizens, he’d like to skip the part that involves actually running for the office.  He finds that uncomfortable, and thinks he shouldn’t have to do it.  But he wants a guarantee of long-term job security, which would make him the only local elected official to have that.

Cutler has gathered enough signatures to place a proposal before the voters at the upcoming town election to grant him tenure.  If it passes, he will be able to remain in office without running again for another 15 or so years.  Should he decide to give up the full-time paid elected position before that, it will revert back to being elected at regular intervals the way it has been for centuries before now.

Cutler is making use of the provisions of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 41, Section 19.  This statute allows such tenure to be granted, and it is not unprecedented.  As of 2014, there were 18 clerks in the state (out of about 351 cities and towns) with such arrangements.  Under that law, he could be removed from office for “just cause” by the selectmen after a public hearing.  He could then appeal their decision to the courts.

Cutler explained his plans to a surprised board of selectmen last week after he had gathered enough signatures.  He said he needs tenure because the position requires job security.  He told board members, “It can become a popularity contest rather than who is qualified to do the job.  You need security. You can't have constant turnover every few years." 

Constant turnover?  Is he serious?  Cutler himself has held the job for seven years.  The only two times he has run for reelection, he was unopposed. 

His predecessor served for more than a quarter of a century, much of that time having to run annually rather than once every three years.  Yet never – not even once - during that long time in office did she ever have anyone run against her on the ballot.

So no incumbent Foxboro town clerk has so much as faced an opponent in 35 years or longer.  Yet Mr. Cutler believes he needs job security?  That seems odd at best, and self-serving at worst.

Cutler also claims giving him tenure would help keep the office of clerk “neutral” when it comes to working on elections where he is on the ballot.  "It is still not a comfortable position," he said concerning such a situation. "That is a great benefit with this (tenure)."

A great benefit for who?  Mr. Cutler?  The town certainly doesn’t gain any major advantage.  This occurs only once every three years.  Every other town clerk in Foxboro’s 237-year history has somehow managed to struggle through this discomfort and retain their neutrality.  Mr. Cutler should be able to do the same.  If not, he should step done and give the job to someone who can.

No one is questioning Cutler’s job performance or his right to pursue this unusual route.  But it is fair to question his motivation and wisdom in doing it.  If he were proposing the post be changed to appointed, that would be a totally different story.  It would be a change to the position itself.

But tenure applies only to the individual, not the job.  As Cutler correctly points out, whoever eventually replaces him would have to be elected.  Only Cutler would be granted the privilege of being an elected official who never has to place his name on a ballot.

If Mr. Cutler wants comfort, he should get a new chair.  If he is seeking unconditional love and support, he should consider getting a dog. 

What he should not do is request preferential treatment.  There is no good reason to grant him tenure.  No elected official should be rewarded with what amounts to a lifetime term.  This move seeks to solve problems that do not exist and are being invented. 

Foxboro citizens will decide this issue by voting.  Ironically, that’s exactly what Mr. Cutter wants to stop them from doing.  Their right to vote should trump his need to feel more secure.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local elected official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Friday, March 6, 2015

North Attleboro Override is Unfair

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, March 6, 2015.
By Bill Gouveia


            North Attleboro officials are asking voters for a $4 million tax increase.  If approved the additional tax revenue will be used to maintain service levels in many departments including police, fire, public works, and of course the school department.  It is meant to help the town as a whole.

            But make no mistake, this is a school override.  It is designed to lessen the financial burden of those who have children in the school system at the expense of those who do not.

            This is not a popular way to phrase this. The description will no doubt anger many.  But it is accurate, and has been deliberately structured that way.

            Selectmen and school officials have agreed if the override passes, fees to school parents for busing and parking will be eliminated.  The fee for riding the school bus is currently $300 per student, with a cap of $600 per family. 

            Town officials estimate the override will result in raising taxes on a home assessed at $350,000 by $250 next year.  It would increase another $125 in the second year, and yet another $48 in the third.  That is $423 over three years, and then that $423 remains every year after.

            So a family with two children currently paying bus fees, living in a $350,000 home, saves about $750 over the first three years if the tax increase passes.  That savings for them will be made up largely from the pockets of taxpayers without school children, who will continue to cover that loss of fees every year going forward.

Now it can and has been properly argued that fees were unfair in the first place.  Charging for busing, parking, and other activities places a heavy burden on parents and families.  It goes against the general philosophy of public education.  If the tax increase fails, officials will raise fees for activities like sports by an additional $350, adding to the financial crunch on parents.

But school officials are saying if the tax increase fails, they will close a school.  Athletics will be eliminated from the budget.  The system will be decimated.

If all that is true, how can they justify eliminating fees?  How tough can things be if they are actually allowing some select folks to pay less?

The tax increase is a tough sell.  The town’s own survey shows parents with kids in school are the group most likely to vote in favor.  Officials believe there is no chance of passage unless “school people” have an overwhelming reason to support it.

So they are trying to buy those needed votes by dangling the fees as a carrot.  One of the school committee members actually used that analogy earlier.

When Selectman Patrick Reynolds was just candidate Reynolds, he had this to say about increasing taxes:  "Before we talk about overrides, we need to look at how government is spending money. The key is to spend smarter, not spend more.”

Now that he is in office, he has changed.  Recently he said:  “Voters have a choice to make, and it’s a simple choice.  They can choose to increase their taxes and keep the services the way they are now, or they can choose to save their money and say that they’re okay with losing some of their services.”  He added that he believed the override “is the most fiscally responsible thing we can do.”

I guess that whole “spend smarter” thing just didn’t work out.

North’s financial needs are very real.  The services in question are valuable.  But the way this tax increase is structured is patently unfair, obviously biased, and overly political.

If the schools are in need of additional funding (and they are), they should not be eliminating fees.  More than anything, a tax increase must be fair to as many as possible.  This one doesn’t come close.

These additional taxes would benefit much more than just schools.  It is reasonable to take into consideration that school parents picked up much of the revenue burden through fees over the last several years.

But the very idea of totally eliminating some fees when your financial need is greater than ever makes no sense.  Unless – of course – you are trying to sell a tax increase that wouldn’t pass otherwise. 

Then, it just might work.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Please Help Hit-And-Run Victim Rest

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, March 2, 2015
By Bill Gouveia

            As the Assistant Town Clerk in Seekonk, Karen McHugh had to pay attention to details.  She had to notice the little things and take care of them.  It was a big part of her job, and her job was important.

            Now Karen’s friends and family are counting on the good people of Seekonk who she so faithfully served, and perhaps their friends and neighbors, to do their job.  The mystery of her tragic death must be solved and closure brought to those who loved her.

            McHugh was walking in front of her Seekonk home on Friday, January 30th, trying to get to her house from her garage.  The large snow banks forced her to briefly walk on the edge of the roadway.  Before she could reach the comfort and safety of her home, she was hit by a passing car and killed.

            According to police, that car then continued along Arcade Avenue in Seekonk, heading towards Taunton Avenue.  It left behind some glass, some smashed signal light lens cover material, and the broken body of an innocent victim and dedicated public servant.

It has been about a month now since local police began an intensive search for the vehicle and driver involved in this horrible incident.  Despite their best efforts, the results have been discouraging.

Authorities believe the car in question may have been a dark-colored General Motors sedan.  The lens they discovered could possibly be from a 2004-05 Chevrolet Malibu Classic, a 1997-2005 Malibu, a 1997-99 Oldsmobile Cutlass, a 1997-98 Oldsmobile Achieva, a 1996 Chevrolet Beretta, or a 1996 Chevrolet Corsica.  They also believe the vehicle would have some front-end damage, and a broken directional signal or side marker.

So far both the driver and the vehicle are unidentified.  But they are both out there somewhere.  Hiding perhaps, trying to stay out of sight and out of trouble.  And somewhere, somebody knows something about them – even if they don’t yet realize it.

While Karen McHugh rests in a cold grave, the person who killed her is likely somewhere warm and safe.  While Karen’s family and co-workers mourn her death and deal with their grief, that driver and any passengers they may have had with them have to deal with knowing they must either step forward, or look over their shoulder for the rest of their lives.

This was probably a terrible accident.  It is doubtful the driver meant for this to happen.  Maybe they didn’t even realize it at first?  Or maybe they were drunk and are now afraid of the consequences?

Regardless, they had no right to simply drive away and leave Karen McHugh bleeding on the ground.  They will be held responsible for what they have done, in this world as well as the next.

Because you see, somebody does know something.  Someone saw something.  They may not yet realize it, it may not have dawned on them yet – but it will.  And then that person will talk to authorities, and there will be no place for the hit-and-run driver to hide.

Maybe you know someone who had a broken light recently.  Perhaps you know of someone who had a perfectly good car, then suddenly didn’t have it.  Maybe someone said something strange about the incident, and you passed it off. 

Perhaps you saw what appeared to be an old burned-out car in the woods somewhere.  Maybe you noticed a large mound someplace where something large might have been buried.  Perhaps you saw someone unexpectedly donate or junk a vehicle.

You can contact Seekonk police at (508) 336-8123.  You can make an anonymous report at (508) 336-7027, Ext. 9.  You can write a letter, send an email.  They will check any lead, appreciate any help.

Karen McHugh deserves to be at rest, as does her family.  Her community is a close one, and they watch out for one another.  Her family will keep searching, the police will keep searching, and people from Seekonk and beyond will keep searching.

One of those “little things” is going to fall into place soon.  That driver knows this.  He or she should step forward now and stop living a lie.

Karen McHugh was important to her community, and that community will not rest until she can.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.