Clarence Fanto: Hinsdale's vote creates bad precedent

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LENOX -- The agenda-driven hostility that grips the town of Hinsdale seems to be plucked right out of a TV soap or pseudo-reality show.

It’s understandable that Hinsdalians may feel unfairly singled out for the venomous personal vendettas surrounding the unfortunate tenure of Police Chief Nancy Daniels, who was fired late last month by two of the three Select Board members after she was unable (or unwilling, her critics might argue) to attend and pass the police academy training required for her position.

But the animosity that has surfaced at the Select Board meetings -- including at least two alleged physical confrontations -- sets a new low for citizenship and basic civil conduct.

That said, Hinsdale is far from alone in Berkshire County, where seething anger has erupted in Great Barrington over a Berkshire Hills school building project that many voters considered unaffordable, in Sheffield over the siting of a Dollar General big-box store, and in Egremont for manifold reasons.

The Daniels case that has roiled Hinsdale will be settled in the legal arena.

Let’s be clear. Massachusetts law requires that all full-time chiefs -- in fact, any full-time police officer -- be certified at the Municipal Police Training Committee academies offered periodically in Springfield and other locations statewide. Temporary waivers were granted for Daniels, who contended that health problems, including surgery, prevented her from attending several scheduled sessions.

One temporary solution that could have avoided all the ugliness would have placed Daniels in a 32-hour position until she could attend the academy. But voters in Hinsdale wanted a full-time chief for good reasons. A majority of the current Select Board believes she was not qualified when hired by a previous board in 2010.

The latest chapter in this saga was written Wednesday night, when 297 ballots were cast at a special town meeting on a home-rule petition allowing the recall of elected officials for "lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties, corruption, malfeasance, or violation of oath."

Only 21 percent of the town’s 1,432 registered voters were motivated to attend. Apparently, the vast majority of townsfolk just didn’t care enough to turn out for this crucial gathering.

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When the ballots were counted, there were 202 voters in favor of the recall measure, 95 against. So, a mere 14.4 percent of the registered voters supported the recall proposal.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Now, State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, has to take the petition to the state Legislature, which approves or rejects the home-rule measure. If endorsed, probably not until late this year, it has to be signed by Gov. Deval Patrick.

Lawmakers should take a hard look at what a small minority of Hinsdale voters has done -- attempting to overturn the electoral process which assigns three-year terms to the town’s three-member Select Board.

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Town Counsel Joel Bard of the Boston law firm Kopelman and Paige -- which represents one out of three cities and towns across the state -- has pointed out that 30 to 40 percent of Massachusetts communities have approved various recall procedures.

However, the Hinsdale version sets the bar really low, since only 100 voters could begin the process of ousting elected officials. The next step requires 20 percent of the town’s registered voters to sign a recall petition. Then, unless a targeted official steps down voluntarily, a special election would follow in two to three months.

This is all about an effort by Daniels’ supporters to seek revenge against two of the three Select Board members who voted to dismiss the chief.

Selectman William Goddard, Jr., along with the board’s chairwoman Bonnie Conner, are the objects of some voters’ wrath. They voted to put Daniels on paid leave last November and then formed the 2-1 majority to dismiss her outright.

Goddard told WAMC Northeast Public Radio that he considers the outcome of Wednesday’s vote a potential "double-edged sword for whoever gets in office, if somebody is in fact recalled. Now if you’re in there for six months and if somebody doesn’t like you, they get 100 people to go against you Š I don’t think it’s the right way. I think it should be done through an annual election. If you don’t like the way the people are, then vote them out at an annual election."

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After 36 years, Selectman Bruce Marshall presumably holds the countywide record for length of service. He supported the recall petition as "a good optionŠFor myself, I’ve been here awhile and if I wasn’t doing my job and people wanted me out of here I’d be the first one to go. But you got to do your job. You got to work for the people in the town of Hinsdale. That’s not being done."

It was Marshall’s truck that was adorned with a bumper sticker last summer reading: "For a small town, this one sure has a lot of a--holes." (Forgive the language, readers).

Conner, who’s said by some to have a personal axe to grind against the ex-police chief, dug in her heels by declaring she would not resign if 20 percent of the voters seek her ouster. "I think it’s part of their plan," she told WAMC. "They have a whole plan laid out."

Remember that both Conner and Goddard won election to three-year terms in last May’s town election where 37 percent of voters turned out -- remarkably, one of the year’s highest town election participation rates in the county.

If the recall petition is approved in Boston without modifications, the donnybrook that has engulfed Hinsdale -- and, one fears, made the town a laughing-stock -- will reach new depths. As former Selectman David Kokindo, leader of the recall drive, told The Eagle: "We got what we wanted. This is how you control your government." Kokindo. you may recall, lost to Goddard by a wide margin last May.

As attorney Bard put it, the measure opens the doors for throwing officials out of office without the need for critics to substantiate their claims: "This is not an investigation. It’s not a fact-finding mission. It’s not an adjudication. It’s simply something for the individual residents to decide for themselves."

Conner has described the effort as bad public policy since "100 people can insinuate anything they like and start a recall procedure. No proof required. It negates the electorate. If you don’t like what’s going on, vote them out next time around at elections."

There’s a better solution for Hinsdale and other small towns with grievances against their officials: Step up the election calendar, requiring voters to show up every two years to "control" their government.

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