Clarence Fanto: Shouting matches get nothing done
Those Hinsdale folks -- a small portion of them, it should be pointed out -- sure know how to stir up a never-ending ruckus.
When we last left the saga involving the embattled former police chief, Nancy Daniels, she had filed a discrimination suit against two of the town's three Select Board members, and 205 out of 297 residents had approved a home-rule petition at a special town meeting attended by 21 percent of registered voters.
The petition, if sanctioned by the Legislature later this year, would allow an organized petition drive that could be initiated by 100 voters to throw elected officials out of office for "lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties, corruption, malfeasance or violation of oath." It would require 280 voters (out of 1,400 registered in town) to approve the petition.
Daniels, you'll recall, had been dismissed in a 2-1 vote by the Select Board for failing to attend Police Academy training required of all full-time chiefs and officers in Massachusetts. She had cited medical issues for her inability to comply with the requirement.
This past Wednesday night, the Select Board turned down Daniels' recently submitted application for a part-time officer's job -- one that was not open. Again, the vote was 2-1.
As reported by WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which recorded the meeting, a raucous crowd of Daniels supporters, numbering around 30, protested the decision to the extent that Select Board Chairwoman Bonnie Conner -- accused by the Daniels group of harboring a personal grudge against the one-time chief -- adjourned the session after 15 minutes.
In the recording, screaming can be heard and one woman accused Conner of "acting like a moron."
Along the way, as tempers continued to rise, Conner asked the Hinsdale police officer on duty, Rodney Maloney, to eject two women whom Conner accused of disrupting the meeting. Maloney declined, telling Bonner the protesters were not creating a sufficient disturbance for police intervention.
"My duty is to the town, not to individuals," Maloney told WAMC after he suggested to Conner that the meeting be adjourned before matters got totally out of hand.
After she did so, a resident called state police to complain of a disturbance at Town Hall. Two officers responded but there's no indication that they were needed.
Was Daniels' effort to gain part-time employment in the police force turned aside arbitrarily?
Selectman William Goddard, who joined Conner in voting against the former police chief, said he had not seen Daniels' application; furthermore, he cited a letter from the town's acting police chief, former Pittsfield officer Charles Bassett, requesting that, in fairness, no additional officers be added until a permanent chief is selected.
Anyone out there keen to serve as police chief in Hinsdale?
Seriously, this is an outrage. For his part, 36-year Selectman Bruce Marshall, who has consistently voted in favor of Daniels, claims she has "done a fine job for the town. I believe she got railroaded out of this town, plain and simple."
Marshall, of course, is a character in his own right, having plastered a bumper sticker on his truck last fall berating fellow citizens in terms barely repeatable in polite company.
From this distance, some 15 miles away in the (currently) placid town of Lenox, there's no way to judge the merits of the case. That will be resolved in the legal system.
Conner and Goddard, Daniels's opponents on the Select Board, were elected to three-year terms last May, five months after the chief was appointed to full-time service by a previous board.
Apparently by necessity, Select Board meetings in Hinsdale seem to be run with a firm, perhaps iron hand. A resident who questioned why the Daniels application for part-time work was turned down was gaveled into silence by Conner, who warned that any further queries would cause the resident to be shown the door.
As heard on the WAMC recording, another resident then yelled at Conner: "It's such a power struggle with you!" That prompted one more person to join the verbal fray, telling the Select Board chairwoman: "My God, you won't let nobody talk."
Conner said that the protesters are misguided and misled; if they knew all the facts behind the decision to dismiss the police chief, they would understand the Select Board's reasoning. Those facts appear in the town's letter of dismissal to Daniels as well as other town documents but can't be released until her legal action is resolved.
What is it about several of our county's small towns and their police chiefs? We've witnessed the debacle in Egremont, where ousted chief Reena Bucknell is suing the Select Board over its handling of her case.
Here's my take on the Hinsdalians. According to state law, a full-time department member must be certified by the state academy; a one-time, 270-day waiver until the next academy session can be granted for good cause, and Daniels got one. The reasons why she failed to attend subsequent trainings remain unclear.
Given the unruly behavior, to put it mildly, of a small minority in the town, the Select Board chairwoman is within her rights to try to maintain decorum and civility so the town's business can be conducted, even if some of her rulings seem arbitrary. There's a level of dysfunction in the town, but the mostly silent majority should be speaking up for the sake of the community's reputation.
Government at the local or national level cannot be conducted through shouting matches, which are the first step down the long, slippery slope leading to minority rule and (worst-case scenario) mob rule.
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto.
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