Benefit dinner site is moved
June 22, 2010
BY WALTER BIRD JR.
NEWS STAFF WRITER
SOUTHBRIDGE — Roger Lamontagne wants to set the record straight.
First, however, he wants to let people know the annual take-out dinner to raise money for the Alzheimer's Support Network will be held at the VFW on Everett Street on Election Day, Tuesday, June 29.
"We have moved it," said Lamontagne, the transition care programs director for Tri-Valley Elder Services in Dudley, out of which the regional ASN operates. "The VFW graciously allowed us to have pick-up at their place."
The dinners had been served there in the past (as recently as Election Day last November), but this year the network was going to try something new to drum up sales by distributing rib dinners out of the Community Center on Chestnut Street on the day of the town's annual election.
The Community Center, known by many as the former Armory building, is the polling place for precincts 1, 3, 4 and 5.
It didn't take long for the fires of controversy to start burning, with allegations surfacing that the dinner was being held at the center as a way to benefit certain Town Council candidates. There were suggestions that such an event might violate election laws, suspicions snuffed out by Brian McNiff, a spokesman with the Secretary of State's Elections Division.
"As long as the event doesn't get in the way of people voting, there are no rules against it," he told the Southbridge Evening News last week.
Lamontagne, saying he was "blown apart" by the ensuing controversy, told a reporter late Monday there was no effort on the part of ASN to boost the campaign of any candidate in next Tuesday's annual election. Likewise, he continued, no one from the agency contacted the town manager in any way, as had been told to a reporter last week, before gaining approval from Town Clerk Madaline Daoust serve the dinners at the Community Center.
"We understood the town clerk was responsible for the election process," said Lamontagne. "One of the board members made contact with Maddie. It was only a take-out and people weren't going to be staying. Then we got Board of Health approval."
Daoust could not be reached for comment Monday night and Town Manager Christopher Clark was also unavailable.
"ASN," said Lamontagne, "we've been in operation 25 years and always done things to the letter of the spirit of the law. All of our servicing, we're all volunteers, it's all been from the good will of our volunteers.
"It was beyond my comprehension that someone could think we'd be in cahoots with any individual or group."
ASN had formerly operated out of Harrington Memorial Hospital. Some sources, speaking on conditions of anonymity, suggested ties between the town clerk and some employees there played into the decision to allow the network to set up at the center on Election Day.
Lamontagne shot down those theories.
"Under no circumstances did Maddie do anything inappropriate," said Lamontagne. "There was no going to her after the town manager said no."
While he believed there was nothing wrong with serving the dinners at the Community Center, Lamontagne said he did not want the perception to be out there.
"After [Southbridge Evening News reporter Gus Steeves] had spoken to me, I had gotten another call from a former candidate for Town Council," he said. "They were just making me aware that a couple people had made contact with the Secretary of State's Office. I did not wait for clarification. I did not contact SOS.
"Once we knew there might be some impression, falsely though, that our town clerk was being taken to task for something that was not done, we decided to move it and put everything beyond the scope of any kind of speculation or rumor.
"I know that when people are running for office, they want to do the best they can. It's important to them and they want to make sure they get every chance to succeed. But as we've seen, sometimes people begin to get very concerned and anxious and imagine other people are taking advantage of the situation."
The initial decision to use the Community Center, he continued, was simple.
"The reason … is because Tri-Valley does Meals on Wheels there," said Lamontagne. "And the basis of doing it there was to get the vote out. It's a town election and turnout is always low, lower than I'd like to see it."
That, said VFW Director Harry Voyagis, is precisely why the dinner belonged at the Community Center.
"I'm disappointed he's not doing it there," he said. "I think it's a great place and people would be there voting. It's a great way to increase their sales. I'll certainly do it down here. If it's going to help the Alzheimer's Network, I'm all for it."
Earlier Monday, this newspaper received a call from a woman who did not give her name, but who raised an altogether different reason for the dinners not to be served at a polling place. The smell of pork, she said, is offensive to some, including vegans and would be bothersome while voting.
The dinners at the VFW will be served from 4-7 p.m. on Election Day. Only those who pre-purchased tickets will be able to pick up meals. No more tickets are being sold, according to Lamontagne.