In Sprague, a town crew works on selectman's property
Mark Lounsbury, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Democratic state Sen. Cathy Osten's other job, first selectman of Sprague, says many town residents complained to him on the campaign trail that Osten allows public works crews to do work on the private property of people she knows.
Lounsbury told people to call him if they see it happening, and he would take the responsibility for bringing it to light.
Then on Wednesday, he says, he got a call from someone watching a town public works crew clearing tree limbs from the property of Osten's Democratic colleague on the Board of Selectmen.
Lounsbury, a retired Norwich police detective, swung into action, and later in the day he sent me a video that shows a town crew feeding tree branches into a shredder on the property of Selectman Denise Dembinski.
Lounsbury told me they were there for hours. It had to have been a long time, since Lounsbury had time to get there and photograph them.
By the time I arrived at Dembinski's home Thursday morning, the front yard of her house looked well trimmed, with some remaining piles of leaves and sawdust and twigs that looked like they had been neatly raked up after heavy tree work.
Dembinski, who greeted me cordially at her front door, said she had the tree limbs cleared from the recent storm on her own and that they were piled at the side of the road, where public works crews could collect them, as they would for any property owner.
She said she did call the public works department to alert them that the branches were there by the road.
When I pointed out that the video shows the town equipment and crew working fully on her property, not just retrieving from the roadside, she said they might have thought it was safer to pull in. She suggested they may also have mistakenly taken some logs left farther in on the property for a local sawmill owner to retrieve.
I also asked Dembinski to comment on Lounsbury's allegations that Osten, who he says closely supervises the town public works department, often sends town employees to work on private property.
Osten, she said, does all she can to help people, and that has included plowing church parking lots, cutting a tree for an elderly resident or repairing private driveway aprons at the roadside after storms.
"Cathy will help anyone in town who needs help," Dembinski told me. "She's just there to help, especially after a devastating storm."
Osten, when I reached her Thursday afternoon, was a little more circumspect about her willingness to use public resources to help people in need.
She wouldn't deny ever sending public works to cut a tree on an elderly woman's property, but said she didn't know what incident Dembinski was referring to.
She said the town does sometimes plow the St. Michael's Center parking lot but doesn't do plowing for other churches. The plowing, she said, is part of an informal, unwritten agreement in which the town trades the plowing in return for some use of the center for the town's summer recreation programs.
As for the tree work at Selectman Dembinski's property, she said the town's willingness to pick up storm debris from the sides of roads was well promoted, and a lot of it was collected.
Like Dembinski, she suggested the crew may have pulled off the road onto the private property in the interest of safety.
I pointed out that the video shows workers picking up branches and putting them in a chipper far from the road, she noted that the selectman has a long driveway. I am not sure what the length of the driveway has to do with it.
Osten also showed no interest in seeing the video. When I offered to send it to her, she said I could if I wanted to but her phone wasn't working very well.
To be fair, she said she was having a hectic day. I appreciate her getting back to me at all.
Still, you would think she'd want a peek at what a political opponent says is evidence of the misuse of public resources to personally benefit a public official, even if you have already prejudged it.
I will give Dembinski the benefit of the doubt that, in calling public works for help clearing away her branches, she was asking no more than what any resident would be entitled to.
But clearly driving a town truck onto private property to clear and chip away branches is well beyond appropriate town assistance, even in a town where the chief executive aims to help everyone in need.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
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