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Alex Grant: Politics of Anger Goes Local

The Special Town Meeting saw the passage of a recall provision for certain elected officials, and for its proponents, it surely had the intended effect by prompting the resignation of the four targeted School Committee members without the trouble of going to the ballot box. And so closed an angry campaign by certain community members to renew the Superintendent’s contract. Renewal at this point is nothing more than a formality.

The Renew campaign also managed to inflict a degree of deep personal hurt on the four targeted members and their families in way, I am sure, they will remember for the rest of their lives. The charges levied against these four volunteers, steeped in hyperbole and innuendo, are worth reviewing.

A flyer that was inserted in the Springfield Republican accused them, among other things, of “conducting a School Committee meeting so lacking in fundamental norms of civility and decency that they have created additional potential legal liability for the Town.”

The flyer also demanded change because “incompetence costs you money.” Another flyer claimed that they had “usurped the authority that We granted them.” I should note, dear readers, the capital “We” was no typo. Renew used the royal We and Us to refer to themselves, which they conflated with the voting public at large.

When Renew was not accusing the four of general incompetence and of lacking decency, it was shading the truth. Thus, Renew claimed that there had been Open Meeting violations when no such violations had been found. In fact, the town’s attorney investigated one such complaint and found it baseless. Even when alerted to the fact that no such violation had been found, Renew retained the reference to “Open Meeting Law violations.” Even the Republican was misled by this drumbeat of false charges by referring in a news story to “violations of state law,” although it, unlike Renew, corrected its story when alerted to the error.

Renew stoked the fires of outrage by claiming that school administrators had only been given 15 minutes total to speak to the School Committee. In reality, the session with the administrators lasted over one hour. I was there, and so were a few dozen others, and it was all on tape. But truth has trouble catching up to the lie.

Renew sold the recall measure as applying to the reviled School Committee, when in fact it applied to all elected officials except the Select Board.

Beyond the outright falsehoods, Renew raised the specter of malfeasance without ever proving it. Thus, it sounded the alarm about Open Meeting law “complaints,” “potential legal liability,” and the claim of “whistleblower protection” by school administrators. Of course, anyone can make a complaint, anyone can claim whistleblower protections, and anyone can claim that there may be legal liability. More pertinent would be evidence that the complaints are valid, that employees have been retaliated against, or that the town’s counsel has found legal liability.

Renew, in one of its flyers, accused the School Committee members of “apparently deliberating and confirming their votes” before the official vote. Why wait for evidence that they actually deliberated beforehand, when you can simply make the charge to those inclined to believe it? Whether true or not, the charge does the same work of smearing the reputations of the School Committee members.

The brass-knuckled approach used here to reverse a decision on the Superintendent’s contract has echoes in the national politics of today. In the words of Nigel in “This is Spinal Tap,” we have turned our anger up to 11. Very little is out of bounds. In a polarized climate, one’s anger is enough to justify any tactic if it will avert the evil of the other side holding political power.

It is one thing to use these tactics against the far-away personas of national politicians. They are professionals, and they are used to receiving the worst their opponents have to offer. But to use the politics of anger against neighbors, against folks who served you a hamburger at a PTA event or who took the time to fill out the ribbon your child received in youth track, has a real and irreparable cost to those who were targeted and to our community. Is it possible to politely greet a neighbor in the grocery store or on the youth soccer field after you have torn her apart on social media?

National politicians often have the thick skin necessary to be defamed one day and to negotiate with the defamer the next day.

But people who serve on elected and appointed boards in Longmeadow do not typically see themselves as politicians. These four did not, as they indicated in their resignation letters. Volunteers for boards sign up to do some work for the good of the town, and they figure that folks will appreciate their efforts so long as they do their best. The Renew campaign set that expectation on its head.

In the annals of our town history, we should reserve a chapter for this ugly campaign, to show us what we are capable of, and to remind us never to repeat it. In the fullness of time, I hope we can all shake our heads at the idea that we could accuse our neighbors and the parents of our children’s friends and classmates of lacking decency and of incompetence and of usurpation of authority all because they voted in a way that some disapproved of. Even now, I am convinced that the better angels of our nature will triumph over the politics of anger because anger, if allowed to flourish, will make Longmeadow into a place where nobody will want to serve in public office and nobody will want to call home for long.

– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.