By Chris Maza
EAST LONGMEADOW – After approximately an hour of cordial discussion regarding town issues, the March 27 debate between selectman candidates Peter Punderson and William Gorman hosted by the Council on Aging and East Longmeadow Public Access Television (ECLAT) deteriorated into a heated exchange during a segment in which the public was allowed to ask questions.
Punderson bristled at questions from former Selectman Joseph Townshend regarding his bankruptcy for hundreds of dollars in debt and pending lawsuit leveled against him by his former business partner, reiterating his stance that those issues would not affect his ability to serve in public office.
Townshend, reading from a report he said he received from the federal court, asked Punderson to explain why he owed the Internal Revenue Service $11,578 and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue $9,382, to which Punderson responded that the money was stolen from his business by a former employee.
“If you had enough sense to read the articles that have been out and read the [paid advertisement] in the paper today, you would have already realized that,” Punderson said. “I have addressed these things once and that’s the last time … I have answered those questions. I have put my family out there; I put the exposure out there. You have not one idea where any of that came from, so the best thing to do is to not talk out of turn like you’re doing.”
Punderson then refused to answer any other questions from Townshend, punctuating the point with, “At least I didn’t change my name.”
When Townshend turned his attention to Gorman and asked him to define integrity, Gorman responded, “Being up front, being transparent and not hiding nothing.”
At that, Punderson again spoke up to challenge Townshend, saying, “You tell me what I haven’t admitted to and you tell me what hasn’t been brought forward and you try to tell me in the service to this town that I haven’t been transparent, honest and worked my tail off to make sure every person in this town is treated right and taken care of ... I challenge you to find one chink in any decision and any process that I did while I was serving this town.”
He went on to say he paid “dearly” for his professional struggles and was “treated dishonestly” and refused to be embarrassed publically.
“Stop trying to sully my name,” he said.
When Townshend asked Gorman if he had ever had a warrant out for his arrest, filed for bankruptcy or had a foreclosure in the past five years – to which Gorman responded, “No” – Punderson again raised his voice, asserting he had never been involved in a foreclosure and calling Townshend “a liar.”
Townshend also accused ELCAT of censoring him in the past and predicted that he would be again when the debate was televised. Townshend’s questions were not cut from the video posted on ELCAT’s YouTube page.
ELCAT Director Don Maki, who served as the facilitator for the debate, called it “an unfortunate conclusion to this event.”
Video of the full exchange, broadcast by ELCAT, can be found here
Gorman also took his shot at Punderson’s recent professional struggles, stating in his closing statement that three on the list of creditors in the bankruptcy case were East Longmeadow residents and that it was “unethical” for Punderson to act as their representative on the board.
In his closing statement Punderson again addressed the issue, stating that his business problems did not “inhibit, hinder or change who I am, what I am, my intelligence, my ability to lead and my ability to take information and couple that with good thoughts and come up with correct decisions.”
He added that he was not going to get into a “mud-slinging contest” and touted his experience as a former member of the Board of Selectman, Planning Board and Community Preservation Committee. He also stressed that despite the fact that the aforementioned professional issues were ongoing, he was a “darn good member of the Board of Selectmen” when he served after winning an election for the remainder of former Selectman James Driscoll’s term in 2012.
“You can look at my record when it comes to dealing with this town and it is unblemished,” he said, to which Gorman responded, “I wouldn’t call that unblemished.”
Addressing town issues, Punderson and Gorman agreed that they would support a warrant article at Town Meeting that would allow the town to review the charter with the intention of changing the form of government. Punderson said the town needed a full-time professional overseeing the operations of the departments, whether it is a mayor or a town manager. Gorman said he was in favor of a mayoral form of government.
In discussing the fiscal year 2015 budget, for which the Appropriations Committee is calling for all departments to limit increases to 1 percent, Punderson said that having been at Appropriations meetings, he felt the members were doing what they could to “squeeze every single dollar out of the budgets.”
“I don’t know how you could do much better of a job than they are doing right now,” he said, but also identified costs related to fuel, lighting and insurance and avenues to reduce expenses.
Gorman said that while capping increases at 1 percent was a positive move by the Appropriations Committee, the town needed to stick by that directive.
“The problem with East Longmeadow is we come out with something, then it changes down the road. We say we’re out of money for something, but somehow they come up with the money for all of this stuff,” he said. “We have to make these people in charge of some of these departments accountable for what they’re doing and make them stick to what they’re doing because the people are the bosses.”
He later added that town leaders needed to “learn how to shake their head no.”
When asked about the dramatic increase in property taxes this year, which was more than 10 percent, Punderson acknowledged the hardship such a rise created and said mistakes were made, namely not taxing to the levy limit in years past, that created the situation and spent several minutes outlining information he received from the accounting office to explain why the increase was necessary.
Gorman said the tax increase “really sucked,” and said he didn’t have the same material as Punderson and accused members of town government, which he referred to as “Team Corruption” of feeding Punderson information and denying him the similar documentation when he asked for it.
That said, Gorman said he believed it was illegal to raise property taxes in the manner they were increased in East Longmeadow.
Punderson also said he supported a full-time human resources director, comparing the town to a $55 million corporation that has no one working on behalf of municipal employees.
Gorman said he might be in favor of a part-time position.