Mayor, members weigh in on council fracas in Easthampton

  • Easthampton Municipal Building, 50 Payson Avenue GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • JERREY ROBERTS JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bera Dunau Bera Dunau

Staff Writer
Published: 11/14/2022 7:28:51 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Several current and former city councilors and the mayor are weighing in on a dispute between two council members who in recent weeks have lodged mutual claims of bullying and harassment against each other.

Some observers are taking sides, and others are hopeful that the public airing will lead councilors to find positive ways to interact with each other as they conduct the city’s business.

“Sometimes challenges like the present one are really just great opportunities — to come together, grow together, work together, coordinate, for the benefit of all,” Councilor James “J.P.” Kwiecinski said in a statement. “I think we can build a very successful team.”

At issue is a dispute between At-Large Councilor Owen Zaret and Precinct 5 Councilor Dan Rist.

Earlier this month, Rist called on council leadership to deal with what he alleged was harassment and bullying by Zaret. Rist said in an Oct. 31 email to City Council President Homar Gomez that he received correspondence from Zaret that he considered to be threatening. In that correspondence, Zaret calls out Rist for his “unwillingness to call, text or meet with him” and requests an apology and a pledge from him to proceed without prejudicial practices.

Rist said he had always communicated with Zaret through on-the-record communication via email or in session, but would be forced to leave the council — a position he’s held for 27 years — if Zaret’s behavior continued.

Zaret denied Rist’s claims and alleged that Rist was the one who had been marginalizing and retaliating against him for more than a year. Zaret says Rist has severed communication with him outside of council email after he expressed concerns last year about the deliberation process for an ordinance item as well as the source of information that was  submitted on the record. After sharing that with Rist, who was vice president of the council at the time, and then-president Peg Conniff, Zaret alleges that both councilors didn’t acknowledge his concerns and opted not to discuss it further.

Gomez originally floated the idea of holding a mediation session between Zaret and Rist, but late last week rejected that idea after Rist said he did not want to have a relationship with Zaret outside of public meetings.

“I am going to respect that decision,” Gomez wrote in an email obtained by the Gazette. “I am convinced that the public process allows the works of the city to move forward, and they are not affected by not receiving personal calls or text messages.”

Conniff, who served for three terms before not seeking reelection in 2021, and Lindsey Rothschild, who resigned in June in the middle of her second term, both reached out to the Gazette after a Nov. 2 story detailed the conflict between Rist and Zaret. Both former councilors stated that they were also on the receiving end of similar behavior from Zaret.

Civility in government

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said she typically does not get involved with internal matters of the council, but decided to weigh in after receiving Rist’s email as it was not the first time he had addressed health concerns related to stress. Last year, Rist took a leave of absence from the council after having been advised to remove “any type of stress” from his life, according to a September 2021 email.

In a Nov. 3 email addressed to Zaret, Rist, Gomez and Police Chief Robert Alberti, LaChapelle commended Gomez on his leadership and emphasized a goal of civil discourse.

“Two city councilors stepping back from their duties due to nonrelated councilor business in the last two years worries me,” LaChapelle wrote. “My worry grew as Councilor Rist felt it necessary to (again) share the medical reason for his leave and why he chose to use written communication with Councilor Zaret. No rule or law mandates how municipal multi-members communicate or the manner of communication. Councilor Rist found a way to serve and preserve his health. Councilor Zaret has served as a councilor, seemly unimpeded by forms of communication.”

In an interview, LaChapelle said that in communicating with Zaret over the past few years, she’s found that if she doesn’t agree with his viewpoint, circumstances can become “quite intense.”

“He doesn’t let up,” she said.

‘Toxic culture’

Another former councilor, Erica Beaudry, is coming to Zaret’s defense. Beaudry was elected through ranked-choice voting to fill the vacant at-large seat of former councilor William Lynch IV, who resigned in 2020. She said she chose not to run for reelection because of the “toxic culture” swirling around the council.

After reading about the conflict in two Gazette articles, Beaudry said the accusations against Zaret do not sit right with her. She felt that Zaret was the only councilor who was supportive of her goals during her short time on the council, and described watching colleagues treat him poorly.

“I never could quite tell why they held such animosity towards him,” Beaudry said in a statement. “The general culture of the Easthampton City Council is quite toxic. It is not welcoming to what the folks who have been there for several terms consider outsiders. When someone new steps up to the plate to run they are quickly discouraged or their campaign is undermined. Dan Rist, Peg Conniff and Lindsey Rothschild were all responsible for this type of behavior when I ran previously for the Precinct 2 seat held by Homar Gomez.”

Beaudry said she felt discouraged by several seated councilors when she ran for office, and cited Conniff and Rothschild as “actively discouraging people” from supporting her bid for office.

“This council does not welcome diversity of opinion and the theme of keeping conservatives out comes into play whenever anyone who might not agree with their particular political opinions attempts to run,” said Beaudry.

Rothschild said she was extremely saddened and confused by Beaudry’s account of feeling that she was involved in a conspiracy against her.

“I only have respect for Erica. I was already a supporter of Homar as a Precinct 2 council member, so I did not support Erica’s campaign, but I certainly wasn’t against her,” said Rothschild. “In fact, I nominated her to fill Bill Lynch’s vacant seat as an at-large member of the council. … We worked on a committee together. I felt like I had a good working relationship. She never spoke to me of her concerns.”

Similarly, Conniff said she was surprised by Beaudry’s account of her experience with the council.

“I think she’s awesome. I loved having her on the council and getting to know her. I think she brought a different perspective,” Conniff said. “She is a lovely person.”

Beaudry said she felt moved to reach out to the Gazette because she wanted to share her own experience and identify the “broken” culture at the council. She said Zaret is passionate and enthusiastic about issues the city is facing, and he attempts to work collaboratively with everyone. She hopes the council can be a welcoming and inclusive body.

“I think the accusations aimed at Owen are unjust and the finger-pointing could literally go in any direction on the council,” Beaudry said. “There are many people behaving badly but I don’t believe Owen is one of them ... I think in this moment we as a community have an opportunity to take a step back from arguing and negativity and find a path forward that is transparent, compassionate and productive for our future growth.”

At-Large Councilor Brad Riley, however, said that even though he and Zaret agree on most issues important to Easthampton voters, the “seemingly personal vendettas” Zaret has against other councilors regularly distract the full council from conducting business with a level of respect and decorum he feels the public deserves. He said that Zaret’s communication with other members has long been a source of contention that predates his time, and that Rist’s concerns were valid and that he believes the allegations Conniff and Rothschild made against Zaret.

“I’m optimistic we can overcome this interpersonal challenge on the council if we treat it with the same thoughtfulness and due diligence as we do our policy challenges,” Riley said in a statement. “It is my sincerest hope city leadership will join together in an honest mediation process, and for the voters to hold each of us accountable who don’t.”

Transparency,civil discourse

For his part, Zaret said he welcomes mediation with Rist.

“Whether absolutely needed or not, any opportunities to gain insight into each other and have meaningful dialogue should always be welcome and explored,” Zaret said in a statement. “Clearly there is a sense of injustice held here by all parties. We need to peel away from the edges and meet in the middle. Just like the word mediation means. Conversations above condemnation. Seek connections not conflicts. I wish all peace and compassion during this tumultuous time and a hope for balance soon.”

Over the last few days, Gomez, a father, grandfather and husband, said he’s been reflecting on the importance of balancing family life and holding an elected position.

“I would like to thank my colleagues, former members of the Council and those serving now, for maintaining those boundaries, in spite of a world pandemic that tested each one of us and our mental health. We can be good civil servants and at the same time decide what we do, and who we talk to, in our free time,” Gomez said in a statement. “It is concerning that some people don’t respect the boundaries set by others. I encourage all of us to reflect on our actions and privilege, for the best of ourselves and our community.”

As the council president, he intends to fight against those who push or force residents away from serving on the council or try to silence them. Gomez further advocated for transparency, thoughtful civil discourse and for councilors to use the time during public meetings to engage the full council in discussion.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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