|By G. Michael Dobbs|
The April 13 election in East Longmeadow presents voters in that town with a race between former Selectman Joe Townshend and incumbent Selectman James Driscoll. To say that emotions have been running high is an understatement.
Anyone who has followed the politics of this town understands there has been considerable conflict between these two men during their shared time on the board.
This conflict has been carried into this election with the distribution of a group of documents from the Hampden County Registry of Deeds detailing tax liens placed against Driscoll concerning monies owed by his former business, a bar and restaurant in Wilbraham.
I received my sheaf of documents from a concerned resident of East Longmeadow (not Townshend). I've been told the goal of the distribution is to support a movement to have a town ordinance that would prohibit someone with tax liens from serving in public office.
The interesting thing is nowhere on the documents given to me was a pitch for the ordinance. Instead here are four headlines:
"Would you elect someone with federal and state tax liens?"
"Selectman Driscoll, the taxpayers deserve an explanation."
"Are there more liens coming?"
"Elected officials should not have a history of tax liens!"
Clearly this document is about the election and not an ordinance.
Not that I'm a constitutional lawyer, but I can't help but wonder if the proponents of this legislation have had their idea examined by legal experts. There could be a nifty lawsuit in the future if it was enacted and used against someone.
The liens are no surprise. They have been discussed around town for the past several years.
I spoke recently with a staff member at the Registry of Deeds who strongly cautioned me to be aware that even if on the Registry's Web site it appears a lien has not been paid, that doesn't mean it hasn't. There is a lag in information making its way through the system.
Driscoll told me in an interview last week that all of the liens have been paid with interest and that all of the liens were about his failed business. He noted he has always paid his East Longmeadow property taxes.
He also pointed out he could have taken the route of declaring bankruptcy, but instead he earned money to pay off his business obligations.
Driscoll said he considers the painful experience of owning an unsuccessful business as one that has made him a better elected official as it showed him the challenges small business people face.
So if he doesn't owe the town in which he lives and if he has paid his business' taxes, what's the issue before the voters?
The issue, as far as I can see it, is whether or not voters should make some sort of value judgment based on an elected official having a failed business and tax obligations.
Driscoll has been compared to State Rep. Benjamin Swan, who has had a history of not paying his Springfield property taxes on a timely basis. The difference here is Driscoll's debt was with state and federal officials and his actions have never directly impacted the finances of his community.
So the discussion during this election has been not centered on political records, past accomplishments or proposals for the future. It has been about one guy's former business accruing debts, which he has paid off and whether or not this is acceptable to the voters.
I find that rather amazing.
East Longmeadow residents will have to decide on April 13 if they believe this is an appropriate litmus test to determine their vote.
This column represents the opinions of its author. Send your comments online to firstname.lastname@example.org or to 280 North Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028.
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