Sudbury’s Little Watergate: The Highway Commission Affair
The Highway Commission had never been a popular institution in Sudbury. According to the Selectmen, they were accountable to nobody but the voters; the voters didn’t like them because somebody else’s potholes were always being fixed before theirs, and the School Committee worried that they were spending too much of the town’s money. In short, they were a loose cannon with a $750,000 budget.
The Commission had been a bone of contention in town government for many years. First proposed in 1962, it was established by a home rule petition the following year. Five years later, an article appeared on a November 28, 1968, Special Town Meeting warrant to “rescind” it. The article failed.
By 1970, the heat was on again. Highway Superintendent Louis Cassella suddenly resigned, to be replaced by Weldon Thomas, who, in turn, was replaced by Thomas McClure. Another attempt to dissolve the Commission failed in 1971.
Edward Blaine took over the following year, but his honeymoon was short. In May, 1974, Town Accountant John Wilson, in a routine audit, discovered some apparent discrepancies in highway money handling methods. After dithering for more than a month, the Commission voted to suspend Superintendent Blaine with pay, pending completion of investigations and any legal proceedings.
On August 8, 1974, the Middlesex County Grand Jury indicted Blaine for two counts of larceny. In February of 1975, he was acquitted on the first; that he had allegedly kept $476 in cash receipts from rubbish collectors. Blaine’s attorney, Donald Conn, charged at that trial that “someone was out to get Ed Blaine.” and that charge became the basis of Blaine’s later unsuccessful suit against the Selectmen for $250,000 for libel and slander.
The following June, Blaine was also acquitted of the second larceny charge–allegedly pocketing the $1,224 proceeds from the sale of scrap metal at the dump–after explaining that the scrap metal money had been used to refurbish an office at the Highway Department.
The flabbergasted Board of Selectmen then released both a 1974 report by the Haskins and Sells accounting firm which cited several violations of municipal law, and a series of executive session minutes and court transcripts relating to the Blaine affair which included charges that he had used bituminous concrete earmarked for Sudbury’s roads to pave the Highway Department parking lot and had not followed the proper bidding procedures for Highway Department purchases. They intimated that the Highway Commission had a thief on the payroll whom they should fire forthwith.
“Now,” they said, “It’s up to the Highway Commission to act.“
The Commission did, the next night, by a vote of 3-1, (with Martha Coe absent and Chairman John Hare opposed) they voted to reinstate Blaine and pay him his $13,000 in back salary.
Claiming that Blaine had admitted on the witness stand that he had misappropriated Town funds, the incensed Selectmen voted to secure the Blaine trial transcripts and have them sent to the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office for future action. None was forthcoming.
The Selectmen followed up by holding a press conference and issuing a statement castigating the Highway Commission for its action. Highway Commissioner Fred Welch responded that it was all “none of the Selectmen’s business” and Chairman Tony Galeota added: “It’s about time we stopped taking it on the chin.“
The Highway Commission did vow to run a tighter ship, and for some weeks the whole issue settled to a simmering boil, just below the surface.
But not for long. Blaine was quoted by Nick King of the Boston Globe as saying: “Every day I work, the selectmen choke a little more.” His lawyer called the press release: “A vendetta and political harassment designed to smoke screen the unsuccessful larceny charges and provide justification for reorganizing the Highway Department under the control of the Selectmen.”
At this point, Blaine was a pawn in a power struggle between the Selectmen and the Highway Commission. “Blaine was an occasion of opportunity,” said a former member of the Commission. “We all knew the Selectmen were out to get the Highway Commission. A lot of it was personal and a lot the organization and structure of town government. People want things fixed, and when they do, they call the Selectmen. The Commission and the Selectmen had been at odds for a long time.“
In August, Blaine brought his suit against the Selectmen. It would drag on for nearly five years before a court finally ruled that Blaine had failed to prove malicious intent by then-Chairman John Powers. Attorney David Turner defended the Town pro bono.
“That suit didn’t bother us at all,” Powers said later. “The Commission wasn’t doing its job and Blaine was doing something that wasn’t his job and they didn’t have the guts to call him on it. They should have fired him right off–we told them that–but they were too lily-livered.“
In September, John Hare, the only commissioner to vote against Blaine, resigned his post, pleading lack of sufficient time to serve adequately, and the preliminary hearing of Blaine’s suit was called off. The attorneys, Conn said, had agreed it was unnecessary.
On October 13, 1975, the Selectmen appointed Robert Phelps to replace Hare. Phelps later told the Special Town Meeting that Highway Department employees were unhappy. Many of them were even then putting their jobs on the line by distributing leaflets outside the meeting hall.
Meanwhile the Highway Commission announced a new three-year contract with Blaine, assuring him raises over that period. The Selectmen quietly voted to call for abolition of the Highway Commission at a December 15 Special Town Meeting.
“Dissolving the Highway Commission will put out the fire of chaos and re-establish Sudbury as a well-run town,” said Selectman Chairman John Taft. “It’s important for the townspeople to get a chance to be heard on the way the Highway Commission has been operating over the past few months. This seems the best way to do it.”
Galeota jumped to the Commission’s defense. “The Highway Commission is working,” he said. “Just ride around town and see what we’ve done in the last five years. And as for Blaine’s contract being for three years, the statute requires that it be for three years!”
But the efforts of the Commission were to no avail. The Selectmen had whipped the voters to a fever pitch and when a request for a secret ballot was granted at the Special Town Meeting, the Commission’s doom was all but sealed. As of March 26, 1976, The Sudbury Highway Commission would be history. Blaine announced he would seek another job as of March 1.
The Selectmen had the last word in the 1975 Town Report: “The townspeople’s ‘Vote for Sudbury’ at the December 15th Special Town Meeting, will give the Highway Department, its employees and the town the opportunity for a fresh start”, they wrote.
“The revelations of mismanagement and improper handling of town funds would not go away, and, once the townspeople had accepted the awful truth and witnessed the ‘business as usual’ attitude of the majority of the Highway Commissioners, they made their decision. The immediate reaction was one of relief, of taking a depressing weight from all of our shoulders, of putting Sudbury ‘right’ again.“
Robert Noyes, the third generation of his family to hold the position, took over as highway surveyor on the first working day of January, 1976. He served as an elected town official until Sudbury hired Town Manager Steven LeDoux who appointed William Place to the post in 1998.
In one respect, the controversy served a useful purpose. It highlighted the advantages of consolidating day-to-day executive power with one individual rather than several boards or commissions.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.