Getting Unelected in Holland

HOLLAND–It is a quaint, wooded town of 2,300, nestled between Sturbridge and Brimfield on the banks of the pristine Hamilton Reservoir. A white, steepled church, a school, the town hall and a tiny library are all there is to the center; down the hill are a gas station and a pizza place, completing Holland’s commercial district. In the summer, second-home owners flock to their lakeside cottages, quadrupling the year-round population. Though only five minutes from Exit 9 on the Massachusetts Turnpike, “It literally is almost like the town that time forgot,” says its state senator, Stephen Brewer (D-Barre).

Holland Quick Facts

Founded: 1783
Population: 2,300
Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • Named after Charles James Fox, a British loyalist who was rewarded for his fidelity with the title of Lord Holland.
  • A typewritten letter from President Ronald Reagan received on the occasion of Holland’s 200th anniversary hangs in the tiny town library. The March 30, 1983, letter reads, in part: “The spirit which has built and sustained your community reflects the energy which has forged America into the land of wonder.”

But Holland is a town in turmoil. The three selectmen here are locked in a rancorous dispute with the small, mostly part-time police force, which they accuse of improper documentation of confiscated drugs and weapons. But some citizens see the selectmen as out of line, and have pushed to recall the two who would otherwise not be up for election this spring–including one who has been ousted by recall before.

Before the month of April is out, Jim Foley, chairman of the board of selectmen, will face a recall election. Foley was pulled from office in 1997 following a dispute with the same chief of police, who has since quit to lead another small-town police department. This time, Foley’s detractors would also like to get rid of selectmen Carolyn Reardon and Paul Foster, who is also the town’s fire chief. Due to a mistake by the town clerk, the petition to recall Reardon fell a few signatures short. Foster’s term is up this spring, so there was no need for a recall drive to put his name on the ballot. But recall backers leave no doubt that they hold all three members responsible for the current mess.

“They ripped this town apart,” says recall organizer Donna Stearns.

In Holland, as in other towns small enough for time to forget, animosities run deep, and memories are long. “What happens, I think–and I’ve learned this at town meetings instead of from having been in the Legislature–is that you can argue about a dog problem in a small town and end up not talking to your neighbor for the next 20 years,” Brewer says.

The current troubles in Holland go back to June 12, when a full slate of new selectmen was elected to run the town. Though terms for the seats are staggered, all three were open: one selectman had passed away, another chose not to seek re-election, and the third–Foley’s wife Patricia, as it happens–decided to step down before her term expired. Foley, a Worcester County correction officer, won a three-year term by a small margin over a write-in candidate. He also backed Reardon, a retired accountant, who narrowly beat out Diane Balderelli, a five-year chairwoman of the Old Home Day Committee, for a two-year term. Fire chief Foster, who is also a former part-time Holland policeman and, like Foley, a prison guard (in Hampden County), won a one-year term.

No sooner had the new board members taken office than they picked a fight with the police department. In late June, the board voted not to reappoint John Jovan as chief, claiming that Jovan had not put himself on the list of officers he recommended for reappointment. Jovan said he had never done so in his eight years as chief. This dispute resulted in the town not being covered by a police force of its own for the first week of July–State Police stationed at Sturbridge were called upon to provide backup coverage–during which time a woman allegedly was assaulted while walking on the main road. On July 13, Reardon and a locksmith were discovered in the process of changing the locks at the Holland police station.

Jovan was soon reinstated, but his relationship with the select board deteriorated further. The board announced that two trash bags and a box of seized marijuana had been found in the police station improperly secured and accounted for, along with six machétés, gun ammunition, and martial-arts nunchucks. Jovan countered that the origin of most of the problems selectmen identified predated his tenure as chief, and that selectman Foster, in his days as a part-time town cop, was in fact responsible for putting away some of the seized property in question. Foster claimed that he was as surprised as anyone by what was found. In another vote of no-confidence in the local gendarmes, the selectmen also announced that they were contacting State Police to investigate missing dive-team equipment worth over $10,000. Jovan quit in October to become the part-time police chief of nearby Sturbridge.

Soon thereafter, Donna Stearns started collecting signatures. Rumors of an impending recall drive had, by this time, been circulating for several months. When the board named an interim police chief who had been accused of beating his wife (though that case was dismissed), Stearns got busy. She assembled 25 people in a room to sign an affidavit in the presence of a notary public, then proceeded to collect a total of 217 signatures–15 percent of registered voters–on the recall petition. “It’s a lot of work,” she says.

But critics of the removal drive say it’s not hard enough to stage recalls in Holland. “They should be used if someone is involved in criminal behavior,” says former selectman Paul Gillis. “But just because you have political differences–we have a process for that: an election.”

Under Holland’s procedure–each town establishes its own recall rules, with approval of the Legislature–once the recall petition is in hand, selectmen have five days to notify the subject of the recall, who then has five days to resign. If he does not, an election must be held 60 to 90 days later, with the sitting official challenged by an opponent nominated by an open town caucus. So now, on April 24, Foley faces Christian Peterson, a newcomer to Holland politics, in a race for the seat Foley won less than a year ago.

Town Clerk Robert Ford, a former schoolteacher from Connecticut who retired to Holland after spending many a happy summer there, agrees that the rush to recall puts a burden on the town. At a cost of $1,000 per balloting, these supplemental votes put a strain on his $8,500 election budget, he says.

The worst thing about recalls, in the eyes of some, is the effect they have on civic life.

But the worst thing about recalls, in the estimation of some, is the effect they have on civic life. “I lived through two in the town of Holland,” says former police chief Jovan, who calls them “stressful and divisive.” He adds, “What gets lost in the big picture is what’s best for the town.”

Stearns’s petition drive has put Foley on the electoral firing line, but Reardon was a near miss. Ford had thought that the 25 affidavit signatures could count toward the total, but town counsel overruled him, and the anti-Reardon petition fell short of the required 217 signatures. Reardon says she could withstand any recall assault, either now or later. “They have to have a good reason” to remove her from office, she says, “and I don’t think they can come up with one.”

Unless score settling counts. Recall organizer Donna Stearns is the sister of Diane Balderelli, the candidate for selectman defeated by Reardon, whom Foley supported. “It’s just small town politics, very hateful,” says Foley. Stearns denies the charge, saying Balderelli refuses to have anything to do with the recall.

But in the small world that is Holland, the family ties don’t stop there. The husband of a third Balderelli sister–and “the Balderelli sisters” is exactly how their political adversaries refer to them–found himself in an altercation with the wife of selectman Paul Foster last fall. At the scene of a fire, Ruth Foster allegedly struck Holland fire captain Stephen Petrello, who was issuing orders in conflict with those of her husband. Petrello quit the fire department on the spot, stripping off his gear and walking off in tee shirt and shorts. He later charged that the incident was related to his questioning of Foster’s dual role as selectman and fire chief. (In March, Ruth Foster answered assault charges in Palmer District Court by agreeing to write an apology for the incident.)

“The Balderelli crowd is behaving like juveniles,” says former selectman Gillis, a retired civil engineer who has served on many town boards. But he concedes that Foley has a certain bull-in-a-china-shop quality.

“Jim Foley made a capital mistake in his first administration when he accused all the former selectmen of being incompetent,” says Gillis. “He was in the unfortunate position of kicking down the doors of the old school crowd. He made a lot of enemies, and to their graves, they’ll hate him.”

Still, Gillis says the beleaguered Chairman is right to try to shake things up in Holland. “I’ve had my problems with Jim Foley,” he says. “But at least he’s young and aggressive and he’s trying to get things done.”

At press time, it’s unclear whether Foley will get anything done beyond securing his own premature political retirement, for the second time.

Meet the Author
But at least the town has come together on one point: All factions speak highly of the new police chief, Donald A. Haapokoski, of Worcester, who was sworn in December 19. As far as the police department is concerned, public order has been restored in the town of Holland. Politics, however, are another matter.

Mary Carey is a reporter for The Daily Hampshire Gazette.