NORTH ADAMS — It started with a meme on Facebook and led to comments about “pent up anger” and “a tube sock full of nickels.” And then to a North Adams city councilor filing a police report, claiming she had been threatened.
Marie Harpin resigned Aug. 31 from the City Council, in the midst of her second term, citing “an increasingly toxic Council environment.” She declined requests at the time from The Eagle to be more specific.
But, about a year ago, she went to North Adams Police and reported that she feared for her safety after reading a Facebook thread that stemmed from a City Council meeting.
So fearful, she said, that she did not want to go far from her home. The incident, which has not been reported until now, led Mayor Tom Bernard to issue letters to two people saying the social media posts violated the city’s anti-harassment policy.
Those involved in the Facebook post and comments say Harpin never was in danger. Suzy Helme, the city employee who made the post, said she felt that Harpin had been bullying her over the past few years.
No crime was committed with the social media thread, city police determined, but letters from the city to Helme and another commenter said the post did break the city’s harassment policy.
In late June last year, Helme, the city’s director of Tourism and Community Events, posted a meme on her personal Facebook page. Underneath a photo of a dancing woman, the meme reads, “haters gonna hate.”
“Bullies will bully and I feel a lot of pity for that sad state of existence,” she wrote.
She posted around 8 p.m., during a City Council meeting held over Zoom in which Harpin, then a city councilor, expressed concern about someone in the city’s Office of Tourism and Community Events who was moved to a fiscal and compliance officer position. Harpin did not name Helme, but Helme said she was certain the conversation was about her.
Helme’s Facebook friends started commenting on her post, which did not originally mention Harpin by name.
Eric Kerns commented using a meme of a character from “Lord of the Rings,” Gimli, that says, “And my axe.” Jennifer Rancourt Civello commented on the post praising Helme’s work. “So if there’s any question or gripe, let me loose on somebody. Puhlease. I’ve got pent up anger,” she wrote.
“Gurl, she couldn’t handle your wrath,” Helme said. Kerns replied to Civello, “I’m with you, lady. Just tell me where to show up. I’ve got a tube sock full of nickels.”
“I second all this!” Becky Miner commented. “Don’t mess with Becky!” Helme added. “I would be scuurd if I were her.”
Helme insists that the post and comments were not a threat of violence, and that most people would read them “as expressions of moral support and having my back,” Helme wrote in an email to The Eagle in response to questions about the issue. They were not, she said, “literal proposals of violence towards anyone, and I certainly was not encouraging anyone to actually hurt her. I was definitely joking in my responses to them.”
The action she did suggest in a different conversation underneath her post: to not vote for Harpin in the next city election.
“I’ve never met Marie Harpin,” Miner said when asked about Harpin’s police report, filed in early July 2020. “I don’t know who she is,” she said. “I don’t know her. She wasn’t named in the post I commented on.”
“When I created that comment on Facebook I wasn’t aware who it was referring to,” Civello said, declining to answer other questions.
Kerns declined to comment on his involvement in the online conversation.
Councilor Keith Bona, who first joined that panel in 1993, said he thinks Harpin tried to take advantage of the Facebook comments.
“I personally don’t feel she saw it as a legitimate threat,” he said Friday, speaking of the June 2020 Facebook posts. “She saw it as an opportunity to take down people that went against her political views.”
He said he encouraged Harpin to report the comments to police after she complained to him about them. Bona said he didn’t feel that the comments were serious.
A day after a second North Adams city councilor resigned, citing a "toxic" environment, several other members of the council shared a different outlook.
Several days after the social media exchange, Harpin went to city police and told them she didn’t want to go far from her home.
“Harpin stated she was fearful for her safety after a conversation she read on Facebook in which she was the subject,” the police report said. It was obtained by The Eagle through a public records request.
After learning of the Facebook post, Harpin changed her plans and opted not to attend an event at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art because, she told Police Chief Jason Wood in a follow-up letter, Helme is on the Mass MoCA Foundation board of trustees and Kerns co-founded Bright Ideas Brewing, which is on the museum’s campus.
In the letter she sent to Wood days after she filed the police report, Harpin described the discussion on Facebook as “gang-like” and said her son told her to stay home and “don’t go anywhere, don’t even take the dog for a walk as he was afraid of what would happen to me.”
Sometimes people are upset with public officials, Harpin’s letter acknowledges.
“However, the threats are not something I ever expected or a reason I ran for public office,” she wrote. “Who would ever run for office in North Adams if you can make an unpopular decision, get threatened for the decision by a constituent and receive no accountability?”
Her letter later adds, “I find it shocking that representing my constituents would lead to threats of violence.”
Harpin has not responded to several requests for comment since she stepped down from the City Council, nor did she respond to a phone call requesting comment about her report to police last summer. But, in recent days, Harpin posted a screenshot of the Facebook thread, as well as a photo of a letter the mayor sent to Kerns about the 2020 comments in the Facebook group “North Adams Now,” a public group of which she is one of a few administrators.
After Harpin filed the report, Wood said he looked into her complaint. He said he determined that no crime occurred and sent his findings to the mayor’s office and followed up with the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office, which agreed that it was not a criminal matter, he said.
When asked to confirm, a spokesperson for the DA’s office wrote in an email that Wood had the authority to make that decision.
“Charging decisions are up to the local police departments unless it is a homicide,” the spokesperson said.
Though no crime occurred, according to Wood, the city determined, after consulting with legal counsel, that the post, and Helme and Kerns’ participation in its comments, violated the city’s harassment policy, according to letters Bernard sent to them.
But, Helme’s post and involvement “do not constitute a threat of physical harm by you against the complainant,” Bernard wrote to Helme after the police report was filed. He issued her a warning.
Kerns is not a city employee, but the city sent him a letter because he holds an appointed municipal role, Bernard said. Kerns is listed on the city website as a member of the Public Arts Commission.
The letter to Kerns said his participation in the thread and comment about the sock of nickels “constitutes both a violation of the City’s harassment policy and creates the appearance of a threat of physical harm against the complainant.”
The letter asks him to “cease making such threats and to desist from such behavior in the future.”
What led up to the posts
The police report notes that a discussion at a June 30, 2020, City Council meeting led to the Facebook post that Harpin reported to police.
At that meeting, the council discussed the July 2020 budget. Harpin expressed concern that someone in the office of Tourism and Community Events was moved to the position of fiscal and compliance officer in the office of Community Development. She said she was concerned that the job opening had not been posted.
She noted that, amid the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many were laid off in the city and she thought that qualified people could have applied for the position.
Posting jobs publicly is important for diversity efforts, Harpin said.
“If you’re for diversity I don’t understand how you can support not posting and advertising a position that’s available in the city of North Adams,” she said.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer responded to Harpin, saying that it was a temporary assignment.
Bernard echoed Blackmer during the session, adding that “it is a person who is qualified to do the work, [and] has been doing the work incredibly well.” Furloughing or laying off an employee would incur costs like unemployment, and a new hire would mean additional benefits costs, he told the council.
“There’s a fiscal responsibility piece of this,” he said.
It’s important to keep city employees employed, Harpin said, but “isn’t it important to keep other citizens employed that are just as qualified or, who knows, more than qualified? I question whether she is the best candidate.”
She added, “I really hope that this council understands what they’re doing when they say this is OK. It’s OK for the mayor just to shuffle people around to jobs that are open and not publicly post, advertise these positions to people who may be qualified and are unemployed. It’s really, really upsetting that you would think that this is OK.”
A vote was taken on the order to give Bernard the ability to submit a budget for the month of July. Harpin and then-councilor Robert Moulton were the only ones to vote no.
In an interview, Bernard said Helme is a “terrific asset” to the city and that he wanted to retain her.
When asked if Helme was the subject of the June 30, 2020, City Council conversation, Bernard said that “in my role as mayor, I assigned Suzy other duties at a time when her primary job was not occupying her time full time,” he said.
A new person has since been hired full time for the fiscal and compliance officer position, Bernard said.
Helme said she took over that fiscal and compliance officer position in the office of Community Development temporarily, while managing the parts of her Tourism and Community Events position that were ongoing during the pandemic.
Helme said she felt “distraught and fed up” when she made the Facebook post.
“From my perspective, we are in the middle of a global crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetime, on lockdown, remotely educating our kids, just trying keep our collective selves moving forward one day at a time and Councilor Harpin is so focused on me that she’s holding up a vote on the city budget … to go after my job,” Helme wrote in an email to The Eagle. “I thought maybe pushing back a little would make her stop.”
Over a few years before the June 2020 City Council meeting, Helme said, Harpin complained about her to her boss, Bernard, about a variety of issues, including that Helme was on the Mass MoCA Foundation board of trustees and that this constituted an ethics violation. Helme said Harpin also complained to Bernard, among other topics, about her work at a farmers market and that Helme “unfriended” Harpin on her personal Facebook.
When asked if Harpin made complaints about Helme, Bernard declined to offer specifics, calling it “an internal personnel matter.”
“Here’s what I will say: I am aware that a former member of the City Council expressed dissatisfaction that a city employee on their own time was involved in service to organizations in the community,” he said.
When asked how often complaints were made by the former city councilor, Bernard said: “It was more than once.”
Bernard saw the employee’s extracurricular work as benefiting her job, he said. “And if I had had any issues or concerns, I would have raised them with the employee.”
He later added, “My team and I are focused on our work. And have been this entire time. And Suzy is a trusted and valued member of my team.”
A job in a city or town hall can come with public scrutiny, Helme acknowledged.
“I have a thick skin and have brushed off all sorts of small-town gripes and grudges since starting this job back in 2015,” she said in an email. “It comes with the job and I can handle that and know the difference between constructive feedback or genuine concern and personal attacks and I feel that Councilor Harpin was targeting me because of her personal dislike of me and abusing her position as a councilor to do it.”
Harpin did not respond to a phone call Friday seeking comment on Helme’s characterization.
Since last summer, the city has not taken action on the issue of harassment, Bernard said. Letters to Helme and Kerns about the city’s policy, he said, “that closed the matter as far as my office is concerned.”