PROSPECT — Every now and again, Republican Mayor Bob Chatfield pops in to the Prospect Senior Center. Seniors say he’s just checking in, saying hi, asking if anyone needs anything.
But in an election season, there’s a fine line between what Chatfield’s made a habit over his 32-year tenure as chief executive and what could be considered politicking or campaigning.
When one walks through the double doors into the main lobby of the center, one encounters a set of signs making very clear the center’s policy on political activism. “We aim for a stress-free environment,” they read, “No soliciting, no campaigning, no politics.”
“He comes for the parties. He never talks politics,” said Lorraine Chapman-Roy, a lifelong Prospect resident. “He knows almost everybody; he knows if someone’s lost somebody … he’s a big help.”
“He’s friends with everybody,” said Minnie Wolvek, another regular at the center. “[His visits] have nothing to do with politics.”
Lucy Smegielski, the center’s director, said that Chatfield “doesn’t abuse” the rules or her strict prohibition of electioneering.
But Smegielski recently turned away another candidate for the mayor’s seat, Democratic challenger Charles Mallon, who tried to visit the center.
“I just wanted to introduce myself,” Mallon said of the visit.
But he didn’t get that chance. When Mallon refused to leave after Smegielski’s request, she called the police, and Mallon spoke with an officer outside. The officer told Mallon that Smegielski, as the director of the facility, had a right to exclude him.
But Mallon said he spoke to two lawyers who told him his First Amendment rights were infringed upon when he was ejected from the public building. He dismissed their suggestions that he pursue legal recourse, saying he “didn’t want to make a scene and embarrass the town.”
Smegielski said Mallon’s visit was intended to solicit votes and thus was disallowable.
“This is supposed to be a stress-free environment,” she said. “I’m not treating him any different than anyone else … I don’t need people coming in and disrupting things.
“This is supposed to be a place where we don’t fight over politics … it’s bad enough we fight over the Yankees and Red Sox … [the seniors] don’t have to put up with that bulls—.”
But Mallon feels that he was well within his rights when he tried to visit the municipally-owned and operated building, and that as another public official (an incumbent Town Council member), he’s due the same privileges enjoyed by Chatfield.
He thinks his debarment from the center “hurt him” in terms of his loss in Tuesday’s landslide election, when Chatfield won almost 80 percent of the vote. He indicated that seniors represent “one of the largest voting blocks in town”— and one of the hardest to reach.
“Unless seniors hear from me and know who I am, they’re scared,” Mallon said. “Scared their taxes will go up” or that his administration won’t support the center the way Chatfield has for so many years.
“Seniors have questions. There are issues. That [exclusionary policy] needs to stop,” he said.
Furthermore, Mallon contends that when Chatfield visits, “it’s all politics,” whether intended as such or not.
“I felt that by just going up and talking to Joe or Mary or Fred and asking how they’re doing, how’s that leg, that’s as political as it gets … when you go in and ask, ‘How’s that new bus we bought [for the center]?’—you tell me [whether that’s political].”
Mallon harbors no grudge against Chatfield—“I have the utmost respect for Mayor Bob. The man’s done good,” he said—but does feel that Smegielski applied a double standard by allowing Chatfield into the center but excluding him at the door.
“That’s a public building. You should be allowed to go in and talk to people,” he said. “I guess the senior center is off-limits—to some people.”