Our opinion: Public officials need to condemn violence
Let's be clear: Threatening someone with violence and then laughing about it is not acceptable. Period
But you think it can't get any worse? How about a local select board member mentioning that one of his constituents was contemplating gun violence in response to a recent article in The Commons, Windham County's weekly newspaper, and then laughing about it?
Is that acceptable behavior in today's day and age of random and targeted violence? We think not.
According to an audio recording of the April 19 meeting of the Halifax Select Board, a board member said a third party told him, "I was so goddamned mad (about a recent Commons story), I told the wife 'I'm gonna get a goddamned gun out and shoot her,' but my wife said, 'Calm down, calm down.'"
And then the people at that meeting laughed about it, with no one responding that perhaps random threats, whether in a joking vein or not, should not be tolerated.
The comment preceded a 20-minute "discussion" with the reporter, who is also a Halifax resident who unsuccessfully ran for the Select Board this year, about the article, which was published in The Commons on April 6. We use the term "discussion" in the loosest manner possible because the "discussion" bordered on an upbraiding.
Now, we understand that in small towns, everyone knows everyone else and, unfortunately, is often in everyone's else's business. But the back-and-forth between the board, members of the audience and the reporter could be perceived as bullying, and that is not acceptable in a public meeting such as those hosted by a Select Board. In the seemingly innocuous article in The Commons, the reporter mentions one of the candidates interested in empty seats on the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustment is the wife of a Select Board member and another is the daughter of a member of the town's road crew.
Perhaps this didn't need to be mentioned because, as noted before, everyone in a small town knows everyone else. And perhaps the reporter, if she needs to mention who is related to whom, should have identified every relationship in her article and not just the two.
Just the same, calling out a reporter in a public meeting is a sign of a thin skin. If you are interested in sitting on any public board and can't stand the scrutiny of the media, you might want to reconsider your public position. And if you are not willing to stand up and say that joking about shooting someone is wrong, no matter the context, maybe you should reconsider whether you are qualified to be a town leader.
As the editor of The Commons noted, "No responsible town official, no matter how they feel about that story themselves, no matter how small the town, should ever condone that behavior in public while executing their duties. Ever. No news story in our community newspaper, no matter how unpalatable it is to the newsmaker or to that newsmaker's friends, is worth threatening bodily harm to a reporter ..."
Perhaps people at the meeting were also upset at the fact that the reporter mentioned that, at a recent meeting, the Select Board went into executive session to interview candidates for the positions on the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustment. Now, we are not saying what they did is right or wrong, but over the years our reporters have observed that such discussions most often occur in other towns in a public meeting and not in executive sessions.
As Secretary of State Jim Condos (who is responsible for interpreting Vermont's Open Meeting Law) told the Reformer, the Open Meeting Law permits holding an executive session to consider the appointment of a public officer or employee, provided that the board makes the appointment in an open meeting as a warned action item, and explains its reasoning, the language of the statute doesn't distinguish between holding an interview with a candidate and generally discussing or weighing the merits of the candidates.
"The usual reason boards give for doing interviews in executive session is to protect candidates who have not informed their employers that they are interviewing elsewhere, and so also improve the candidate pool," said Condos. "This rationale probably wouldn't apply to a PC/ZBA position."
And, as Condos noted, "As a former 18-year member of a city council, for appointments to boards, I cannot remember one time where we didn't interview candidates in open session, but went into executive session to deliberate before coming out into the open meeting for the motion to appoint."
It should be noted the composition of the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals should be as transparent as possible considering the ongoing litigation related to attempts to open a quarry in Halifax.
We should expect our town leaders to interpret the Open Meeting Law in a manner that errs on the side of transparency. We should also expect our town leaders to decry violence in any form and not allow bullying in a public meeting. At the next board meeting, the Select Board could apologize to this reporter and condemn violence directed at anyone in the community.
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