LENOX — Many of us who made the Berkshires our forever home years ago considered it an oasis of tranquility compared to our previous urban or suburban locales.
Naive, perhaps, but there was some truth to the notion that this bucolic paradise, as we thought of it, was more civil, genteel and certainly peaceful.
Now, of course, it’s evident that there’s no safe harbor anywhere. Blame anti-social media, as I often do, along with a deep-rooted chasm of political and social differences.
One example: A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll showed 52 percent of Americans say former President Trump should be charged with a crime in any of the matters in which he’s under federal investigation. A similar majority agrees that he should be charged with a crime for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.
But 48 percent of registered voters surveyed would choose him if he’s on the ballot in 2024, with 46 percent supporting a second term for President Biden. Seems like we’re on two different planets.
Multiple examples of reprehensible behavior in our communities support the conclusion that if Berkshire County ever was a refuge from turmoil, it’s far from that now.
Towns roiled by harsh public disputes, often playing out during Zoom meetings, have included Becket, Great Barrington, Hinsdale, Lenox, Monterey, West Stockbridge and Williamstown, just to mention a few. City government and involved citizens have tangled, fiercely at times, in Pittsfield and North Adams.
Two recent incidents caught my attention.
At the Sept. 22 Stockbridge Select Board meeting, which can be viewed on demand at CTSB.org, a local resident berated board members Ernest “Chuck” Cardillo and Jamie Minacci for allegedly favoring second-home owners — over the year-rounders who elected them — during the recent brouhaha over a potential residential tax exemption.
“I can’t believe the two of you announced you would never vote for it,” said Michael Roisman, “thereby prematurely killing the possibility and cutting off all discussion before the formal vote in October.” He demanded the resignation of both members.
The meeting proceeded without further discussion of the hot-button issue that pitted seasonal residents against some full-time locals who would have benefited at the expense of the second-home owners.
Of course, public comment during Select Board meetings is open to citizens who have the right to express their views. But the bitterness evident during this brief episode was in stark contrast to the gracious acknowledgement previously by Board Chairman Patrick White, who advocated the tax discount idea — similar to Florida’s “homestead exemption” — that public sentiment in Stockbridge appeared opposed to the exemption.
In Richmond, which has had its share of controversies involving the Berkshire Natural Resources Council’s Hollow Fields Preserve and the Balderdash Winery, resident Holly Stover told Select Board members she was “appalled at the bullying the Conservation Commission is taking. … Our town officials are coming under attack and it just sickens me. This is one of the reasons you don’t get volunteers to do things, I’m heartsick about it.”
She explained that “homeowners, some who come in from elsewhere, think they can just run roughshod over our town officials and Conservation Commission. We’ve seen it for years to a lesser extent, but it seems to have gotten much worse recently. The rudeness of the homeowners was just awful.”
Possible solutions include better training for town officials and volunteers on how to handle bullies and shut them down appropriately, Select Board Chairman Roger Manzolini suggested. “Frankly, if I was being bullied right now, I’m not so sure I’d know the correct way to handle unacceptable behavior,” he said. Abusing Conservation Commission members for doing their job should not be tolerated, he added.
Abusive emails are the main irritants, according to the commission’s chairman, Ron Veillette.
A town-wide seminar connecting local officials with experts would signal to residents that there’s a bullying problem to be confronted, said Selectman Neal Pilson, who teaches a course on leadership skills at Columbia University.
“We’re part of a much larger ecosystem here where rudeness, bullying and in some cases violent behavior is becoming quite the norm, it’s becoming common in our country,” Pilson said. “Richmond is not an isolated, happy little island. It’s not limited to our town or how they treat our officials, we see some of the comments in neighboring towns, where some of the rhetoric is a lot stronger or more prevalent than in Richmond.”
These incidents, and many others chronicled by The Eagle, help explain why public involvement in local government has been fading. Many town election ballots are filled with uncontested “races” and turnout for annual or special town meetings, as well as for municipal elections, often falls below 10 percent of eligible voters.
There’s no magic cure for this epidemic of incivility and harassment. But shining a spotlight on unacceptable behavior is a first step toward re-establishing a social contract that values open debate while setting clear lines that cannot be crossed in a healthy democracy where respect, tolerance and good citizenship must prevail.
The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.