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Public servants aren’t servants. They are our friends, neighbors and co-workers who generously volunteer their free time to serve on boards and commissions, whose mission is to improve our schools, grow our businesses, design our village centers and much more.

Public servants in small towns are the town clerks who help us sort through local issues and register our dogs — and endure our gentle griping as we hand over our property tax payments. They are the town managers and administrators who make sure our roads are plowed, our municipal water systems function, our streets are paved and safe, and all the branches of civic government deal with the public in a respectful and helpful manner.

Public servants are our select board members, whose workload to plan for the best future of our communities is huge. They often have full-time jobs, then spend their nights and weekends (and grocery store stops) listening to residents’ concerns and ideas.

But this is not an easy time to be a public servant.

Imagine the shock and revulsion of outgoing Brattleboro Town Manager Yoshi Manale when he was delivered a package of feces in what is presumed to be a disgusting prank to express disapproval of Manale’s handling of certain issues.

An odd footnote: The package came from a website that allows people to anonymously send feces from different animals. There’s so much wrong with that sentence. What kind of twisted mind creates such a website, much less pays money to use its services?

That is an extreme example of the vitriol that public servants across the state are experiencing from the very public they stepped forward to serve.

In Bennington, the Select Board often requires a police presence to ensure civil discourse and out of concern for potential violence (a loud dispute broke out before the meeting on Monday). Local social media websites are flooded with conspiracy theories and innuendo about public servants. Verbal tirades from certain members of the public are not uncommon before, during and after public meetings.

In Townshend, a resident was arrested after attending a meeting of the West River Education District Board meeting and yelling at attendees and board members, “I’m going to destroy you.”

For the most part, we trust these are harmless — although offensive — fits of temper. In many cases, alcohol, drugs and mental health issues are at play.

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In other cases, a handful of people flood public offices with requests for public records that are not part of a genuine search for information, but fishing expeditions. Expensive fishing expeditions. Government offices are rightly required to provide most information on request, and that’s a good thing. But when one citizen drowns a public office in random requests for documents, some requiring attorney review and sign off, this becomes a serious time loss for employees and financial cost to taxpayers.

Legitimate requests are vital — no one knows that better than the press, who often come knocking at town hall for information. But in some cases, an individual will ask for hundreds of documents over a limited period of time, which can cost local government thousands of dollars to produce. Again, there is sometimes a mental health component at play.

Further turning up the heat is social media and email access to public servants. Bullying a committee member or municipal worker is as easy as hitting a keystroke or two. Access to public servants has never been easier.

It’s a wonder anyone is willing to serve in this day and age. And with public shootings across the country dominating the headlines, the fear that one of these bullies will follow through on a threat “to destroy you” is real and understandable.

We have previously expressed concern for the safety of our election officials and volunteers in the face of numerous threats to their safety.

We respect the public’s right to disagree with opinions and decisions made by committees, boards and officials, and to speak out about their concerns. In the Brattleboro Manale case, for example, there was controversy about his recommendation and the Select Board’s decision to change a local ambulance contract; everyone has the right to express their views on that issue, even loudly if need be — but in a respectful manner.

But the new reality has gotten scary. Not only is it unsettling to serve, surely the general public must think twice about attending these meetings, much less speaking up.

Vermont lawmakers, the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office should take a hard look at the state’s current laws protecting public servants to ensure they address the reality these Vermonters are facing in 2022. That work requires a delicate balance between the right of public expression and the need to guarantee public safety.

No Vermonter should fear for their safety when they step forward to serve their community.