What exactly has been going on in Monterey? That question should be answered before anything rash is done about the structure of local democracy in this small and seemingly quiet town.
Unfortunately, something rash is indeed on the table after last weekend’s special town meeting. As a complex web of accusations roils municipal government, Monterey voters approved two measures: 1. Spending $10,000 on an investigation, and 2. A citizens petition for an election recall provision that would enable tossing out elected leaders midterm.
The first measure is reasonable and necessary, as clarity is sorely needed. The second measure, however, stands to be quite unreasonable in practice, especially given the difficulty in speedily ascertaining the relevant facts sought by the first measure. At this point, it is hard to keep track of the number and substance of fingers pointed between current and former officials across various town departments. As of this writing, there are 20 complaints involving seven individuals ranging from hostile work environments to verbal abuse. The fact-finding mission approved at town meeting to get to the bottom of all this, though, has already hit a snag. About 72 hours after the vote to hire him, private investigator Paul L’Italien, a former state police detective, quit after realizing the scope of the incidents he was tasked with investigating.
While it will be far from easy, Monterey desperately needs to get its arms around this morass of allegations compromising local government’s efficacy and leaving some deeply worried about the town’s future and, in some cases, their own safety. We are not taking sides in these various conflicts because as of now it would be foolish to do so without all the facts. Given the scope and content of these inter-official conflicts, though, those facts must be in hand and visible to the public sooner rather than later.
The recall initiative, which still requires the Legislature’s approval, would allow just 15 percent of residents to petition for a referendum on elected officials. For small towns, recalls can be unwieldy and corrosive, and Monterey cannot afford to introduce more of either of those elements into its already troubled political climate. Staging an election at the whim of relatively few petitioners would pose considerable practical hurdles, and for relatively little practical gain in this instance. Much of Monterey’s drama centers on and around the Select Board, where the term of office is only three years. By the time all the facts are marshalled, at least two of the three Select Board seats will likely have been decided by the normal course of new elections. The high potential for turning up division via recalls is therefore not worth it in our estimation.
Pursuing a thorough probe is still crucial. It might take more than one investigative entity; it may well require more than $10,000. Getting to the truth, though, is worth it here, and opaque tumult in Town Hall has its own costs. The people and leaders of Monterey need to be able to get to the bottom of this in the most transparent way possible. And when the whole truth hopefully emerges, officials — current and former — need to be able to bury the hatchet so that local government can spend more time functioning and much less time as an arena for interpersonal conflict. Easier said than done, as some of these conflicts are years old, but that’s all the more reason to begin putting this behind them for the public’s sake.
Reconciliation requires truth. We call on Monterey officials to turn down the temperature and prioritize getting the whole truth out to their constituents over furthering the animosity that has snarled Town Hall. Then, democracy should play out without the added chaos of a recall initiative, even if it is OK’d by the Legislature.