Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Sadly, 'All are Welcome' a sentiment we can no longer agree on

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LENOX — Bucolic, idyllic, tranquil, quaint, family-friendly, welcoming. Those are apt descriptions for many Berkshire County towns and villages as it has been for Groton, a community of nearly 11,000 in north central Massachusetts.

But a recent flareup at a town meeting that drew 400 residents last week may be emblematic of our hyper-polarized, toxic political environment.

A few months ago, Groton voters approved spending a token one dollar to have DPW workers install engraved, granite markers bearing a message to visitors on roads leading into town.

The greeting would be simple enough: "All Are Welcome." It was proposed by Selectman Jack Petropoulos as a goodwill gesture and approved 140-113 at the spring town meeting.

Under each of the eight stones was buried a time capsule that included student essays on the theme of what the message meant to them. Citizen donors contributed nearly $4,000 to cover the cost of engraving the stones.

But, according to reports in the Lowell Sun and the Boston Globe, the signs didn't find favor with some residents who took issue with one word; "All."

A group of opponents petitioned for a second look at the issue at the fall town meeting held last Monday. Their goal was to remove the "offensive" word in favor of "Welcome to Groton" or simply "Welcome."

" `All,' that harmless little word, is what we're talking about," Petropoulos acknowledged.

At the town meeting, one resident complained that the "All" message conveyed a pro-immigration viewpoint not shared by everyone in the community.

Perhaps it even suggested that Groton was a "sanctuary" town, said Jack Saball: "We do not want someone to read this and think the town has a political agenda." The former selectman, a retired police captain, explained that if a sign is on public property, it should not be "political."

Did the ruckus have anything to do with the placement of one sign on a busy state highway where construction of a Hindu temple is nearing completion? Was the message perceived by some as anti-Trump? Hard to tell.

The Groton Herald had published a letter from a former town moderator arguing that there had not been enough discussion before the spring town meeting that approved the stone markers.

"The right of a citizen to rise and speak freely, whether it is to support or oppose, is sacred and the cornerstone of our town meetings," Robert Gosselin wrote in his letter to the editor. "Let us fight to preserve, protect and defend that right."

Facebook posts by local users claimed that the "Welcome All" signs would attract "a criminal element," "pedophiles" and "terrorists" to the town, the Globe reported.

But some posts from outside Groton took the town to task — "Imagine being so racist you can't even pretend to be OK with a rock that says `all' on it," one person tweeted. Another asked: "When did the words `All are welcome' become controversial? That's the ultimate American ideal, engraved on the Statue of Liberty."

In an open letter to residents, town officials wrote: "The early 21st century is marked by a growing divisiveness in our country, or at least by an increasing exposure to, and influence of, divides that have always been present. There is little that a small town can do to influence this other than to express its hope that this trend will resolve for the good, and to add its voice in an effort to make that happen."

Happily, after two hours of impassioned yet civil debate at last Monday's town meeting, residents voted not to change the "welcome all" signs. Removing "all" would "leave a scar that will define and divide us forever," one voter commented.

Petropoulos, the selectman who had proposed the sign, declared: "This was not a sanctuary-city issue; it was not a political or religious sign. It was a way of telling people as they come in and out of our town that it's a welcoming place."

Now, which Berkshire community wishes the honor of installing "All are welcome" signs at its town line?

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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