Many in Chelmsford seek unity after failed recall

On Chelmsford common, townspeople joined in a candlelight vigil on Aug. 6 for unity after a recall election. On Chelmsford common, townspeople joined in a candlelight vigil on Aug. 6 for unity after a recall election. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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For five bucks, anyone in Chelmsford town center on the evening of Aug. 6 could have owned a piece of history.

Up for sale were the “Vote No’’ lawn signs produced by a citizens’ group opposing the attempted recall of four selectmen in a special election that had taken place four days prior. Although proceeds from the large leftover stack would have supplemented funds from the bake sale at the center to replace the South Row School playground, most attendees chose simply to donate money and leave the signs behind.

“Bonfire?’’ suggested a woman in the crowd, as others laughed when reminded the signs were available for purchase. For the group of about 40 people, who had just stood side-by-side in a circle, lighting each others’ white taper candles as part of a post-election “unity vigil,’’ it was clear that they did not want to own a piece of history. They just wanted to put it behind them.

“I think this is very healing,’’ said Jean Whiting, a 30-year resident, at the fundraiser/vigil, which raised about $1,250 for the playground. “It’s after a very tense election and it shows that this wasn’t just about the election, it’s about keeping people together. Maybe mending breaches.’’

Moving on and unifying the town were the reasons behind Stefani Bush’s decision to hold the fund-raiser and vigil jointly Aug. 6 in the town center. Bush is a cofounder of the citizens group Choose Chelmsford, which was formed in opposition to the recall effort of four of the five selectmen that was initiated by local businessman Roland Van Liew. She said Van Liew’s allegations of back-room deals among the selectmen to pave the way for a controversial development on North Road, and people’s current dissatisfaction with government as a whole, divided the town.

“This recall election caused a lot of drama and a lot of stress,’’ Bush said. “Candlelight vigils mean togetherness. When there’s an act of violence or when someone is missing, the community comes together and it’s a symbol of hope, it’s a symbol of unity.’’

Channeling more than $90,000 from his company, Van Liew initiated a successful townwide signature drive and direct mailing campaign to petition for a special election to recall selectmen George R. Dixon Jr., Matt Hanson, Jon Kurland, and Pat Wojtas for what he said was their failure to report “serious ethics violations’’ surrounding the town’s decision to permit the construction of an office building on 9 North Road, a parcel of land in the middle of town center purchased by a firm owned by the father of a former selectman.

Each recall question failed at the Aug. 2 special election, with about 59 percent of the approximately 7,700 residents who turned out casting “no’’ votes. This was the first recall election in town history and cost approximately $20,000.

Van Liew said he is disappointed with the outcome, partly blaming it on the “coordinated disinformation campaign’’ that he said came from town officials warning of a shutdown of services if the recalls passed, and partly on the fact many residents are away on summer vacations. Of the town’s registered voters, 33.4 percent turned out.

“The land deal should be struck down and the building should be torn down, absolutely. Of course [town officials] want to put this behind them, but the elephant is still in the room,’’ Van Liew said. “This is illegal graft and it should be rectified. . . . They’re in complete and utter denial. A candlelight vigil is not going to remove an elephant. Try it some time.’’

Van Liew, who has been unsuccessful in prior attempts to recall Town Manager Paul Cohen and a couple of Planning Board members, said he will wait for the outcome of complaints that have been filed with the state Ethics Commission.

“The only road left to investigate the 9 North Road scandal is through the law,’’ Van Liew said. “They have decided in Town Hall in Chelmsford to close ranks and circle the wagons, and that means the elephant is still in the room and will stay there until the legal system does its job.’’

Town officials have denied the allegations against them, although some of them acknowledge that many town residents are not happy about the 9 North Road building.

“I do realize that there is a lot of anger out there, some of it directed at the position, some at me and the other selectmen,’’ Kurland said, adding that he was not in favor of the building project. “If people can understand, as much as they may be unhappy about the 9 North Road property, that it’s here to stay, and that we have over 800 acres of open space in town that some people don’t even go to see that is magnificent.’’

Wojtas said that while the votes against the recalls weren’t a landslide, “I would call it a significant vote of confidence for the board and myself, so I feel good that way.’’ She said she hopes that people will continue to step up and run for the volunteer positions in town, including the Board of Selectmen, despite the polarization caused by the recall process.

The message of the recall “reinforces the fact that we as board members can’t just make an up or down decision, and you have to explain why and [do so] many times,’’ Wojtas said. “If it does encourage more people to run, then maybe in hindsight it will be a good thing. We need to put this behind us. It was a chapter in our history, and one that we’ll remember.’’

Both Wojtas and Dixon are up for reelection in the spring, and each said they’re leaning toward running again, despite the difficult recall experience. Dixon said the only thing that bothered him about the recall process was being accused of partaking in backroom deals, which he denies. Other than that, he is reluctant to rehash the issue.

“We can keep beefing, or we can say, ‘All right, let’s tighten our belts and get started, listen to each other, and move forward and make it the community it can be,’ ’’ Dixon said. “Did I enjoy being recalled? Not really. But if that’s what it takes to make the town stronger, then it was worth it.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at