TOWNSEND -- Towing is the latest source of controversy in a town that has seen its fair share of political sniping in recent years.
An attempt to formalize agreements with businesses that perform vehicle towing for the police department, a practice that already exists, has morphed into an arduous process full of missteps and quarrels.
At one point, town officials suggested hiring a company that was not properly certified. At another, a resident posted an email from a state official that some took as evidence of dishonesty from town officials -- except town officials allege the image was altered in a way that changed the email's implication.
All of this came with the fallout lingering from last year's attempt to recall two selectmen and oust the town administrator.
The effort to put agreements on paper began last fall. The town opened a public bid, allowing any company to be considered for the position, although Town Administrator James Kreidler said at the time that the goal was for the two towing firms currently doing work for the town to remain with formalized terms.
One of the two companies already conducting towing for Townsend, Shepherd's Sales and Service, decided not to submit a bid, while the other, Harbor Auto Body -- owned by recall leader Joe Shank -- did.
Neither the town nor Shank wanted all of the public utility towing to fall to a single company. Doing so would create an additional strain on the towing staff, and both parties agreed it would be good to have a second company on hand should any obstacles or emergencies arise.
On Dec. 20, Police Chief Rick Bailey attended a Board of Selectmen meeting and named Eastbound Transport of Pepperell as a company that could take on some of those duties.
But a catch soon became clear: unlike Harbor, Eastbound did not have certification with the state Department of Public Utilities to conduct involuntary towing for police departments, a condition Townsend had listed as mandatory when seeking new companies.
As has become common in Townsend, that revelation sparked outcry from opponents of the town -- much of it conducted on Facebook -- who saw it as evidence of mismanagement.
In an interview, Kreidler said the naming of Eastbound before they were certified was "absolutely" a misstep. The company has since applied for that certification, Kreidler said, citing conversations he had with DPU officials.
At a Dec. 28, 2017 Board of Selectmen meeting, Kreidler said publicly that he had spoken to John Keenan, who works in the DPU's transportation oversight division, earlier that day and that Keenan informed him Eastbound had mailed in its application.
That unfolded another controversy. The following week, Steve Sheldon, a longtime opponent of Kreidler's, posted an image of an email he said he received from Keenan. Kreidler later shared what he said was the actual email Keenan sent to Sheldon, and the two versions had differences.
In the image Sheldon shared, Keenan's Jan. 2 email indicated Eastbound "just applied this week" for the proper certification, which some read as evidence that Kreidler had been lying the week before when he said Eastbound had applied. In the version Kreidler shared, Keenan's email states simply that Eastbound "have applied" with no specific timeframe referenced. The image Sheldon posted also includes what appears to be a vertical line indicating a typing icon and a red underline on the word "DPU" as if it had been typed out in a word processor.
Kreidler alleged that the document was altered -- he did not say by whom -- before being posted.
"It wasn't altered such that it made no sense," Kreidler said at a selectmen's meeting last week. "It was altered in a way that made it say what that person's argument was, which is basically closing the door on the chief and my statements being able to be true."
The Nashoba Valley Voice reached out to Keenan seeking confirmation of what his email to Sheldon actually contained. Keenan was reached, but directed all calls to the DPU's press office. An inquiry was submitted Tuesday, as was a records request for the email in question, but the agency had not yet filled the request by press time Wednesday. A spokesperson said Eastbound's application was officially submitted on Jan. 3.
Reached by The Voice, Sheldon said the difference in wording "has no bearing" on his criticisms that the town first mentioned Eastbound before the company was certified. He declined to comment when asked if he altered Keenan's email before posting it.
"On the advice of my attorney, I am not going to answer the question because it has nothing to do with the facts of the actual issue at hand," he said.
At a Jan. 17 meeting, Selectman Gordon Clark -- who, along with fellow Selectman Cindy King, faced a recall effort led in part by Sheldon and Shank -- made a formal motion that the town refer the incident to the lawyer representing it in a lawsuit town employee Kelly Merrill filed alleging her civil rights were violated by unauthorized background checks conducted by police. Clark claimed that he saw the altered email posting as "witness intimidation."
The board approved Clark's motion 2-1, with King voting in favor and Selectman Sue Lisio voting against.
Sheldon has not been charged with anything.
Meanwhile, Shank said he is frustrated that another company has not yet been found to assist with the public utility towing.
"I have met the criteria of the original bid," Shank said. "Why has that not been tended to? Why does that have to go back out? Why do you have to procrastinate the only tow company you have left in town?"
Kreidler said the town could not make any commitments before the "second bite at the apple" bid is complete, even if Harbor Auto Body was the lone applicant in the first round.
"The original intention was that this was an effort and nothing more than being able to appropriately paper the file," Kreidler said. "But I couldn't say today without being a blatant violation of procurement that Harbor is guaranteed of anything."
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.