No-shows, parades and pings

Sunday, July 09, 2017

On its face, Shannon Cutler’s letter resigning her seat on the Southampton Select Board sounded like a stirring call to conscience, an appeal to those who — as she described herself — want to fight against shadowy dealings in town government.

“I tried to fight for the little people who always got run over or the ones who were afraid to speak up,” Cutler wrote. “I tried to air as much ‘dirty,’ unfair and secret behind the scenes activity as I could. In the end I feel the tables have turned and I fight the good fight alone.”

It’s possible that Cutler was calling out conduct that deserves a closer look, but there’s just one problem: She didn’t show up to do the work of making Southampton government better.

Cutler’s resignation, accompanied by a decision to leave town altogether, came after a group of citizens launched a petition drive to oust her from office due to absenteeism. Records examined by Gazette reporter Caitlin Ashworth document that Cutler only had attended about half the meetings of the five-member town board since she was elected in May 2015.

Cutler said a car accident and emergency cesarean section surgery forced her to miss numerous meetings at the beginning of her term, but acknowledges skipping more recent ones out of frustration that, according to her, fellow board members were deciding town business outside of public view — a charge they flatly deny.

Such concerns should have prompted Cutler to attend more meetings, not fewer, so that she could draw public attention to her concerns. Instead, she took the easy route and left her former neighbors to wonder why.

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Speaking of showing up, it was nice to see U.S. Rep. Richie Neal strolling down the street at Chesterfield’s Independence Day parade. While some politicians are regular participants in the annual Hilltown ritual of town bands, fire trucks and children decked out in red, white and blue, Neal’s appearance on the Fourth was a relative rarity.

Might it have had something to do with pressure from Hilltown residents and officials who have complained about the lack of personal visits and other meaningful interaction with their congressman? Neal’s march came shortly after a group called Indivisible Williamsburg took out a newspaper ad chiding Neal for his infrequent visits to the rural corners of his district and asking him to “stop playing hard to get.”

Neal offered what has become his standard explanation: that he gets to the Hilltowns as often as he can, but is often tied up doing the people’s work in Washington, D.C.  “I have 735,000 people in 80 cities and towns and I am in Washington four to five days a week.”

There were only a handful of towns and a fraction of that number of people represented in Chesterfield Tuesday. But many folks gave Neal polite applause, while reserving their heartier cheers for those veterans, firefighters and adorable kids.

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Cellular phone service is generally a blessing, with one notable exception: when it distracts drivers who should instead be paying attention to the thousand pounds of metal they are steering down the road.

State lawmakers are mulling a bill that could have Massachusetts join other states — including neighboring Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York — in barring drivers from using hand-held phones while driving. Texting while driving is already forbidden, and the new law would allow phone use in hands-free mode.

In 2015, one in five of the state’s 291 fatal crashes involved a distracted driver, and national statistics show the carnage has steadily mounted as people take to the roads with phones in hand. As Gazette staff writer Jack Suntrup noted in a story Monday, even normally conscientious people sometimes succumb to the “ping” from their electronic devices.

Suzanne Stickler, 73, of Easthampton said she was driving her minivan down the road last year when her watch sounded. “Someone had texted me a message,” said Stickler. “I should not have looked at it.”

But she did, and hit a fire hydrant. Thankfully, the hydrant didn’t burst. Even more thankfully, she and the countless other drivers who can report similar close calls didn’t veer into another vehicle, a bicyclist or a child walking home. Sickler said, “I learned: Do not text.”

The plan under consideration would slap a $100 fine on a driver’s first offense, with the penalty rising to $250 and $500 on subsequent offenses. Those are small prices to pay for saving lives.