Let's be civil while airing our concerns

Sunday August 12, 2012


When a local resident goes ballistic during a televised Select Board meeting, it's time to review the purpose of the open citizens' forum that is held during many such gatherings around the county.

As reported in Friday's Eagle, a downtown Lenoxian raised a legitimate issue: Motorists speeding through intersections, ignoring pedestrians attempting to use designated crosswalks despite a potential $200 fine for violators who fail to stop.

Town leaders are hoping for some random enforcement to get the word out that the state law is to be taken seriously. Other communities that have seen tragic pedestrian casualties - including Lee, Great Barrington and Pittsfield - have taken similar steps.

But the complainant's tone became increasingly hostile, even vicious, as she continued to recite a litany of other complaints during a 20-minute harangue that eventually sorely tried the patience of Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler.

There's no clue as to why Ellen Marshall was motivated to insult Gregory Federspiel, the long-serving town manager, and to cast aspersions on Fowler, who's the epitome of a diplomatic and solution-oriented leader.

Fowler initially responded to Marshall's complaint sympathetically, noting that he had witnessed many close-call crosswalk incidents himself.

But, a few minutes later, the discussion went off the rails as the citizen declared that non-enforcement reflects "lack of conscience, mercy or compliance with our state statutes." Fowler invited Marshall to a sit-down discussion with Police Chief Stephen O'Brien, which she agreed to but then charged that town government, "no disrespect to this body, lacks direction and lacks enforcement."

Marshall pressed on with a litany of complaints about speeders in her Sunset Avenue neighborhood and motorists blocking her driveway during the town's weekend craft fairs and other special events, despite temporary no-parking signs that are supposed to be posted by the organizers.

Fowler tried to move on to the next agenda item - "you made a very good point this evening," he told Marshall - but she continued undeterred, listing her personal concerns and experiences navigating downtown Lenox.

After increasingly disputatious and disrespectful questions and comments from the resident, the Select Board chairman became understandably frustrated and irritated.

Marshall accused him of rudeness and claimed she was "offended" by attempts to wrap up the discussion.

She then accused Federspiel of being "condescending and rude" during previous phone calls with her and berated the Select Board for lack of attention to local regulations. Not surprisingly, the televised exchange became the talk of the town.

The next morning, I asked Fowler if there are situations that could call for a citizen to be ejected from a meeting for lack of decorum. "I would never eject someone unless I sensed a potential physical threat, and I did not feel that," he replied. "I felt a very high level of frustration and I was trying hard not to lose my temper. The whole thing rests on me - I lost my temper, and it's my total responsibility to keep order."

Federspiel told me, "We are here to try to serve, and you don't need to berate us as we try to do that job."

Here's a fellow resident's suggestion: There should be a reasonable time limit, say 10 minutes at the outside, for each citizen at the open forum. Respect and civility should rule. Lack of same might be cause for the board chairman to move on to the next agenda item. The citizens' discussion period is a privilege, not required by any bylaw, and should be respected as such. The last thing we need in Town Hall is hostility and venom.

Clarence Fanto is a staff writer for The Eagle.

He can be contacted at cfanto@berkshireeagle.com


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