With Lettergate, our latest controversy in which Grafton’s Assistant Town Administrator sent from her work account an email to town employees requesting that they write Select Board members to advocate for the Town Administrator’s new contract, we have reached peak Grafton town government disfunction. This mess succinctly embodies the directionless garbage fire the Board has become this year: it is pointless, frustrating, and shows clear disdain for the town employees and Grafton voters.
And it is precisely the controversy that Grafton needs now.
During a national health crisis that sees our country scrambling to battle a pandemic that threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of people and tank the economy; in the midst of a political climate where reason and logic have been replaced with abject cynicism and tribalism; and on top of a local financial crisis that has been brewing since 2014, we have at long last come to a point where something has to give in local government, and Lettergate may well be the tipping point.
It’s not hard to see that what the Assistant Town Administrator did was wrong. Indeed, in the text of her own email, she acknowledges that she is “uncomfortable” writing the email. And as well she should have been – well before Tuesday night’s meeting, I had fielded calls and texts from employees asking if I’d heard rumors that town employee layoffs were being considered. Amidst that very real-life stress, municipal employees did not need to be put in a position of wondering whether they could afford to say no to the ATA’s request.
Moreover, the entire thing was pointless to begin with. It simply doesn’t matter how many people write in to support the TA’s new contract, or deride it. As Peter Carlson pointed out, we weren’t deciding this by straw poll. The whole thing is a big, dumb self-inflicted wound that ultimately serves only to provide us with insight as to the paranoia that has inflicted the Municipal Center.
The Select Board should take up an investigation, and I will call for one. For her part, it’s hard to tell how remorseful the ATA really is – her screen at the Zoom meeting was blank (why?), and her statement indicated that she regretted sending the email but that she stood by the support of her boss and that she knew “other town employees” did as well. Would those be the same town employees she tried to coerce? It’s hard to tell whether Ms. Meekins is capable of making this a teachable moment, or if this simply is who she is.
But this isn’t really even about Rebecca Meekins. It’s about the flaccid response that her actions elicited from three of five sitting Select Board members, two of whom are up for re-election on June 23.
After I confronted the ATA about the letter, which she acknowledged sending, Select Board Jennifer Thomas immediately tried to move on from the topic, noting that my question (about town employee coercion) had been “asked and answered.” That was the sum and substance of the Chair’s leadership on the issue.
Select Board member Donna Stock overtly equated democratic participation in the meeting with government employee coercion by suggesting that there was a “coordinated effort” to submit letters of opposition to the TA’s new contract. There is being under-prepared for the job and the moment, then there is resort to authoritarian rational to suggest, as she did twice in this meeting, that citizen participation in town government is, in and of itself, dangerous.
Then there was Select Board member Doreen Defazio, the smartest of the bunch, and also an employee in the Town of Sutton, suggesting that an overt attempt to coerce employees to support their boss was simply evidence that the TA is well-liked by his staff and evidence that his contract should be renewed. Say what? Is that how they do it in Sutton? Even Trump wouldn’t have the hutzpah to throw that line out there.
It was all so gross that I needed a shower after the meeting.
Even worse, all three of those elected officials equated to me the need to re-up the Town Administrator’s contract with the need for an override. “No,” I said. “Education is a community value. Tim is one guy.” No, they said. Extending the town administrator was as important to them as providing a quality education in this community. Let that sink in.
The same crew who ran for election on a platform of collaboration, public input and transparency, and tried to hang me out to dry for not allowing enough public discourse during the Bruce Spinney Host Community Agreement last summer, then abjectly refused to allow an additional week for the public to review the proposed contract so that they could have informed input.
To be clear, this is not what I signed up for when I got into town government fifteen years ago. Back then, as tribalism was starting to poison our discourse on a state and national level, I got into local politics knowing that it was non-partisan and that I could make a real difference in my community by being involved. Local politics never was easy. The old expression “You can’t fight town hall” is popular for a reason.
But lately, the enthusiasm with which I am being asked to disregard facts to the benefit of entrenched interests, and their myriad friends and lackeys, is sad and disturbing. When I point out the clear ethical lapse here, and our elected officials’ willingness to ignore this lapse, and even defend it, some moron will invariably come back at me with “Oh yeah, what about your picture in the Zoom meeting with your kids wearing your campaign tee shirt?!?” These people are the worst, and they are multiplying to the detriment of reasonable discourse, and the Town as a whole.
Luckily, we don’t have to keep doing this. There is still an election on June 23, and two of these three people are up for re-election. And this is the beginning of an election season that could either end this mess, or further it indefinitely.