When two city councilors resign within two weeks, each citing vague allusions to a ”toxic” and “dirty” local political climate, constituents are entitled to know what’s going in at the heart of their local democracy. Those important but hastily raised questions still face North Adams residents after the City Council suddenly found itself with two empty seats after former Council President Jason LaForest and former Councilor Marie Harpin unceremoniously exited.
First to depart was Mr. LaForest, who submitted his resignation to City Hall in mid-August. It was an abrupt turn for a council president who was first elected in 2017 and who earlier this year said he was “almost certain” he would run for mayor. In addition to turning in a formal resignation to City Hall, Mr. LaForest also took to Facebook for a parting shot that was more political hand grenade than proper explanation. He slammed “the shameful dirty back-door politics that has marked this council” without offering much in the way of specifics.
Mr. LaForest might no longer be a city councilor, but he still has a responsibility to explain the who, what, why, when, where and other questions left conspicuously unanswered in his alarming but unspecific accusations against some or all of his former colleagues — and the people certainly have a right to know. Absent that explanation, the city is left hanging, unsure if a serious problems or problems remain unidentified and festering. For that reason, The Eagle has repeatedly reached out to the former council president for comment in order to provide the public with some much-needed context to his comments on social media. Despite attempts to reach Mr. LaForest via phone, email and written correspondence, he has apparently not recognized the need for that context.
Shortly after Mr. LaForest’s resignation, however, Ms. Harpin did respond to The Eagle seeking comment from other city councilors after the council president’s sudden departure. “I would say, yeah, there’s some backdoor, backroom politics going on that are not friendly. I’ll just leave it at that,” she told The Eagle.
Then, the following week, Ms. Harpin stepped down from the council, and a familiar cycle ensued. She tendered a brief official resignation. She refused to respond to The Eagle’s multiple requests for comment. She took to Facebook with an ominous nonexplanation for her departure: “This term has been difficult, and with an increasingly toxic Council environment, I feel at this time it’s best for me to resign.”
A two-year term, while not very long, is the term of public service for which the city’s voters elect their councilors to represent them. When running, candidates for any office make an implicit promise to the public they ostensibly seek to serve that they will serve out the full measure of their terms. That promise was broken here, with painfully little in the way of a reason why.
If Mr. LaForest and Ms. Harpin wanted off the council, they could have simply waited a few months until the end of their term. As it stands now, though, the council will have at least one empty seat through the rest of this term. The city council decided to leave Mr. LaForest’s seat open until the November election, and will make a formal decision whether to do the same with Ms. Harpin’s seat next week. This poses potential problems not just in principle but in practice. Having fewer councilors can affect some important procedures, such as certain ordinances and borrowing decisions, according to Council President Lisa Blackmer.
If either Mr. LaForest’s or Ms. Harpin’s reasons for resigning warrant the exception to step down immediately and not serve out the rest of their terms so close to another election cycle, then the public deserves to know why more specifically. Unfortunately, the two former councilors instead declined to enter their apparently weighty misgivings into the official record with their formal resignations, ignored chances to better explain to the public and instead took to social media to stir the pot and constituents’ curiosities without offering much in the way of substantive details. If local officials, former or otherwise, are going to level accusations of corruption, conspiracy theories and toxicity, those are claims that voters deserve to see substantiated, not obliquely alluded to on Facebook.
Yet now the people of North Adams are left with dangling claims of “absurd grand-standing and conspiracy theories of other councilors” from Mr. LaForest and that “the City Council, I would say, is not in a great place” from Ms. Harpin. Anyone who cares about their city and its people would not leave them in the chaotic wake of such unsubstantiated comments. Ironically, and worryingly, the actions of these outgoing officials could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, priming the pump for conspiracy-mongering and toxic speculation.
Now, North Adams is left with a diminished legislative body and more questions than answers as November’s city elections near. The people of North Adams deserve more than that, and we hope that these muddied waters are clarified to the extent that they can be — perhaps by actually responding to one of The Eagle’s many requests for comment to better inform the public. That onus is not on the current members of the council, but the former members making the vague outgoing allegations. If neither former councilor can bring themselves to do that, then perhaps the City Council has already parted with some of its most critical problems.
Beyond that, though, this should serve as a dual lesson to local leaders on the importance of both seeing out the public duty vested in a city councilor’s seat as well as clearly and honestly communicating with the voters that put them there.