WELLFLEET — A contingent of town staff has written a letter to the select board demanding better control over what they see as the lack of civility during recent board meetings.
The letter, which was read aloud by Director of Community Services Suzanne Grout Thomas during the board’s Dec. 5 meeting, refers to angry disruptions by members of the public and intermittent squabbles between board members that have prolonged meetings and drawn the presence of police officers.
“As town department heads and staff, we are increasingly concerned about the level of disrespect and lack of decorum that is permitted at selectboard meetings,” the letter begins. “Disrespect has become the default in far too many instances.”
A copy of the letter obtained by the Independent is unsigned. It says the authors are “Concerned Department Heads and Staff.” Thomas told the Independent that many staff members who were involved in drafting the letter did not want to sign it over “fear of retribution” from members of the board and the public.
Thomas later confirmed that assessor Nancy Vail, Fire Chief Richard Pauley, Harbormaster Will Sullivan, Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta, Executive Administrative Assistant Rebekah Eldridge, and Thomas herself were among those who were willing to sign the letter. According to Thomas and Civetta, as many as 15 staff members attended several meetings in November to write the letter.
The impetus, Thomas said, emerged from staff members’ increasing concern over the tenor of select board meetings and board members’ inability to protect staff members from disgruntled constituents.
“Your failure to support current staff does not create a productive, attractive, or even safe work environment for potential new staff members as well as for current staff,” the letter says, “nor does it create an atmosphere and working conditions that encourages new people to volunteer for boards and committees and run for elected positions.”
Thomas believes most town employees support the message of the letter. “I haven’t met any staff member in any discussion who isn’t concerned about the select board,” she said. “The staff is really concerned because the select board is the top of the pile — it comes up with the policies to give to the town administrator, and the town administrator directs staff to carry out those policies.
“There is no cohesion at the top of the pile,” Thomas said.
Town Staff Complaints
Thomas told the Independent that town staff began discussing the state of the select board this summer when heated debate about the terms of the town’s harbor dredging permit was compounded by a fracturing of the board that ultimately led to its reorganization in July.
Then-chair Ryan Curley wrote a memorandum in June in response to meetings that dragged on for up to four hours; it limited public comments to two minutes and gave the chair discretion to disallow all public comment on certain agenda items. The policy was reaffirmed in an October working session, and the public comment time limit was extended to three minutes.
Despite these efforts, the meetings continued to be “a shambles,” the staff’s letter says. “Angry citizens use Public Comment as a bully pulpit and disrupt and prolong meetings.” The letter does not name the citizens it is referring to.
Two Wellfleet residents, Jude Ahern and Diane Brunt, spoke after Thomas read the letter, calling it a veiled attack on their right to free speech. “It’s called the First Amendment,” Ahern told the Independent.
Since June, Ahern has been escorted out of meetings by a police officer at least twice, including on Dec. 5. Speaking without being recognized by the chair, Ahern has decried the town’s handling of its finances and its pursuit of a mitigation plan to dredge the harbor mooring field, which she called “a five-alarm fire.”
“If people don’t like the way I yell ‘fire,’ that’s too bad,” Ahern told the Independent.
“It should not be necessary to have uniformed police officers present to keep the peace at selectboard meetings,” the town staff’s letter says.
At a Nov. 7 meeting, Brunt accused chair Barbara Carboni of silencing her. Carboni had stated that Brunt was not recognized by the chair. “You silence the people when they are upset — that will not go well,” Brunt told Carboni. “You will live in the bed you have just made.”
Brunt told the Independent that she believes the select board is “dismissive of the public — they don’t want to hear what we have to say.”
The letter from town staff also states that select board members “snipe at each other during meetings.” It refers to an unnamed board member who finds disruptions “visibly amusing.” Thomas said the reference is to Curley. “None of his colleagues call him on it,” the letter says.
Curley told the Independent, “You can laugh from frustration; it doesn’t necessarily mean that you find amusement in something.”
Town staff told the Independent that they have received disturbing emails. According to an incident report filed with the Wellfleet police, Ahern sent assessor Vail an email on Dec. 5 at 4:30 a.m. — the morning before town staff gave the letter to the select board — with the subject line “if an [sic] of your union employees speak up tonight be prepared for the consequences.”
A Nov. 15 email to Waldo from Ahern states, “If I don’t get all of these things by 5 p.m. today, Rich can expect me waiting for him at Town Hall first thing Thursday morning with a police officer.”
In the Dec. 5 police report, Det. Michael Allen wrote: “People like Ahern have been reportedly arguing with staff and sending them emails like the one attached.
“Ahern has been initiating complaints against or public records requests from town staff of nearly every department in Wellfleet,” Allen continued.
“Vail and other staff have felt for some time now that they are working under duress,” the report says. “They no longer feel safe working in Town Hall.”
A Question of Free Speech
Whether town officials have the power to heed the town staff’s demand falls between tricky lines established by a recent state Supreme Judicial Court case, Barron v. Southborough Board of Selectmen.
Last March, the court unanimously ruled that civility rules in public meetings violate free speech rights codified in the Massachusetts Constitution. “Although civility, of course, is to be encouraged, it cannot be required regarding the content of what may be said in a public comment session of a governmental meeting,” the court declared.
The case followed the Southborough Select Board’s silencing of a member of the public for violating the meeting’s policy, which stated, “all remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal, or slanderous remarks. Inappropriate language and/or shouting will not be allowed.” The court found the policy unconstitutional.
Government bodies can still set rules regarding the time, place, and duration of comments at public hearings but not what the ruling called “viewpoint discrimination.”
According to the state’s Open Meeting Law, “no person shall address a meeting of a public body without permission of the chair, and all persons shall, at the request of the chair, be silent.”
The law gives the chair discretion to set restrictions on public comment, including designating time limits, rules preventing speakers from disrupting others, and removing those speakers if they do.
In Provincetown, for example, public statements are limited to the beginning of select board meetings and during public hearings, according to Provincetown’s rules of procedure document. All other agenda items are limited to discussion by the select board.
Wellfleet Select Board members told the Independent that the staff letter is a wakeup call to readdress its public comment policy.
“As chair, I have tried to balance the right of free speech with the need of the board to deliberate, make decisions, and otherwise conduct town business,” Carboni said. “There comes a point, however — and we are at that point — where a distinction must be made between speech content, which is protected, and speech conduct, which may be regulated.
“The tenor of meetings discourages participation by individuals who are disheartened or intimidated by what they see and want no part of it,” Carboni said. “That is an unacceptable consequence.”