Disputes between city councilors and appointed officials are not uncommon, and the clash between now former North Adams City Councilor Marie Harpin and Suzy Helme, the city’s director of Tourism and Community Events, was fairly standard. What elevated it to something quite nastier is the involvement of social media, that great poisoner of civilized debate.
Harpin, who felt threatened by a Facebook thread triggered by Helme, has resigned, the latest of four councilors to depart since May. Former Council President Jason LaForest resigned last month in part because of what he described as dirty politics and the spreading of conspiracy theories during his time on the council. This is a bad time in North Adams politics, it should not have gotten to this point and it will take time to recover.
The sequence of events, put together by the hard work of Eagle reporter Greta Jochem, began with a June 2020 City Council meeting over Zoom in which Harpin expressed concern that someone — apparently Helme — in the tourism office had been moved to a fiscal and compliance officer position within the Office of Community Development. Harpin believed the position should have been advertised so others could apply for it.
Watching at home, Helme, who felt that Harpin had bullied her as a councilor and was now targeting her, wrote “Bullies will bully” among other comments on her Facebook page. Helme’s supporters then escalated the dialogue on the social media front. One posted that he had a “tube sock full of nickels.” Another expressed eagerness for Helme to “let me loose on somebody” because she had “a lot of pent-up anger.” When contacted by Jochem, the latter poster and another admitted they had no idea to whom Helme was referring.
A lot of people have pent-up anger these days, whether it is over mask mandates, vaccinations or the failings of their favorite sports teams. They could all chill a little or, failing that, stay off social media, where pent-up anger rages and spreads like fires in California.
In response to a letter sent by Harpin, North Adams police decided that the postings were not criminal in nature. Still, Harpin was understandably upset by them. Social media posters should keep in mind that comments made in jest or to draw attention may be seen quite differently by the person targeted. Posts shared among friends may still be accessed by others on the worldwide web. And posts, even if deleted, will likely be around in some form forever. Harpin, for her part, should have been more forthcoming about her reasons for leaving, rather than offer social media hints and a confidential letter to the police department. The voters who put her in office deserved more. Similarly, LaForest should have offered more specifics about his departure.
Helme’s temporary appointment to a different position within City Hall, which triggered this tempest, was a reasonable accommodation during a pandemic when the city wants to avoid hiring. Helme’s position on the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation board of trustees isn’t a conflict but an indication that small communities don’t have deep benches when it comes to filling important positions.
Those benches will get shallower if residents decide that running for office isn’t worth the risk of being badgered on social media. Harpin’s concerns about the perils of holding office voiced in her letter to police are likely shared by Adams Board of Health Chairman David Rhoads, who during a recent meeting to consider a mask directive found himself confronted by anti-mask hysterics spreading misinformation and releasing their pent-up anger. If qualified people choose not to run for political office or volunteer for appointed positions, people who are unqualified or have destructive agendas will fill the vacuum. And every town and city has them.