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Chelmsford man challenges selectmen

Alleges corruption, gets recall ballot

By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2011

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CHELMSFORD — In this town, it all depends on whom you believe.

Roland Van Liew, 57, a businessman, describes the politics of Chelmsford, population 34,000, as a disturbing web of back-room dealers, steering development contracts for personal gain and funneling public dollars into efforts to quash the truth.

For those reasons, he directed $90,000 toward a rally for petition signatures, gaining enough to put four town selectmen on an Aug. 2 recall ballot.

Those allegations are pure fiction, say the selectmen and members of a citizens group campaigning to stop Van Liew’s campaign, which they say is dividing the community and chilling the civic volunteerism the town relies on.

“We don’t even get a stipend in this town,’’ said Jon Kurland, one of the members of the Board of Selectmen who, along with George Dixon Jr., Patricia Wojtas, and Matt Hanson, face the first recall in Chelmsford’s history.

“We’re all volunteers,’’ Kurland said. “We’re not in this for the money. I’ve been an attorney in this town for 34 years. My reputation is my life. This guy’s got an agenda, and he doesn’t care whose reputation he smears.’’

Van Liew has crusaded for years against what he says is “corruption, graft, and cronyism,’’ trying unsuccessfully last year to recall two members of the Planning Board, which oversees the use of Chelmsford’s 22.5 square miles, southwest of Lowell.

“People spend $90,000 on a Porsche, let’s say, and nobody bats an eye,’’ Van Liew, who describes himself as an environmentalist, said last week. “But the town officials are saying that it makes no sense to spend $90,000 to preserve democracy. It’s pretty funny.’’

Van Liew has a litany of allegations against elected officials spanning nearly four years, none of them substantiated by judges or formal investigations.

For Van Liew, that only proves “state government has completely abdicated its responsibility,’’ he said.

Van Liew’s most recent corruption complaints originate from a land acquisition in which a selectman, Philip Eliopoulos, acted as attorney for his father’s firm in its purchase of a downtown parcel from a nearby bank between 2008 and 2009.

The town had an interest in the land because the adjacent fire station needed repairs and could use the property for a new parking lot. A committee was formed to look at options, and at a March 2009 selectmen’s meeting, they presented their recommendation: to build a new fire station somewhere else.

The selectmen, including Eliopoulos, voted to accept the report.

Van Liew says the evidence is glaring. Town officials say Van Liew is twisting language.

“All the board did was accept the report. ‘Thank you for your work,’ ’’ said Town Manager Paul Cohen. “The decision was ultimately made by the next board,’’ after Eliopoulos had left.

Van Liew filed a complaint against Eliopoulos with the State Ethics Commission, which neither confirms nor denies whether it is pursuing an investigation or even whether they have received complaints.

Seeing no action from the state, Van Liew blanketed the town, all 12,000 households, with direct mailings, crafted under the banner of Better Not Bigger, a political subsidiary of his information technology company.

With $90,000 channeled from his company, he hired professional signature gatherers, who stationed themselves at the local strip malls and grocery stores. He hired political consulting firms to canvass voters.

Tension grew in the town, aggravated by anonymous bickering on community blogs.

One woman suggested sending letters to Van Liew since he was sending letters to everyone else. That led to harassment of his family, Van Liew said, so he sued her.

Ultimately, Van Liew gained the more than 2,363 signatures needed to recall each selectman, arguing that they have failed to initiate ethics investigations. The fifth selectman, James Lane, has not served long enough to be recalled.

Out of a half-dozen shoppers on a recent afternoon who said they supported the recall, none would give his or her name.

“It’s called self-preservation,’’ one man said, explaining why he wanted anonymity.

“I live in this town; that’s how bad things are,’’ said another.

After Eliopoulos’s father bought the land, considered by many to be valuable open space, he built a two-story, 16,000-square-foot office building on it. The town granted zoning variances allowing it.

For that, some voters see the recall as a referendum on the office building, rather than on a wider corruption scandal.

John Carson, who was a Chelmsford selectman 30 years ago, said that the recall is overkill and that the office building argument is part of the past.

“To me, it’s an issue that’s been settled,’’ Carson said. “Having said that, as far as that particular project, I don’t think it was the right thing to do. I think the construction of this building has spoiled the center of our town forever.’’

Officials said the special election will cost the town nearly $20,000.

“They [city officials] have complained vociferously that the $20,000 cost to an election is not worth it,’’ Van Liew said. “If democracy isn’t worth $20,000 to them as a community, they certainly don’t think it’s worth $90,000 to an individual, which is wrong. It’s worth that to me.’’

Opponents of the recall argue that the cost is more than money.

“Our town is really very vibrant with volunteers,’’ said Joanne Stanway, a member of Choose Chelmsford, which is encouraging citizens to vote no on Aug. 2. “This has got many people saying, ‘Why should I bother getting involved?’ ’’

In a recent election for the School Committee, two candidates ran for two open positions unopposed, something Kurland and Cohen called atypical.

“I don’t really see the need for this drastic of an action,’’ said Wojtas, whose term and Dixon’s expire next April. “We have a process in place called town elections.’’

A successful recall would require another special election to replace the selectmen who are voted out, at a cost of another $20,000.

“It’s sad because we’ve done nothing wrong,’’ Dixon said. “If this happens, this will be tragic for the town.’’

Ben Wolford can be reached at bwolford@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story about a recall election in Chelmsford incorrectly described the process granting approval for an office building to be constructed. The town granted special permits.