South Hadley board member lodges open meeting complaint over anti-racism statement

Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2020 6:38:19 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Tension was high at Tuesday night’s Select Board meeting as members discussed an alleged Open Meeting Law violation related to an anti-racism statement issued by the board last week, which one member did not sign. 

On June 24, members said in a statement that the Select Board “stands against racism in all forms, including, but not limited to violence, racism in language, in publications and teachings, and in behavior.” The statement also called for residents and officials, including the board, to actively stand against racism.

One Select Board member, Bruce Forcier, did not sign the statement. When contacted Friday by the Gazette, Forcier declined to say why he did not sign.

Also on Friday, Select Board member Andrea Miles, who drafted the statement, said Forcier did not respond to her messages about the statement. Miles was “thoroughly disappointed and concerned that it was not signed by all members,” she said.

At the Tuesday night meeting, Forcier said that he is “in full agreement with the sentiment expressed in the letter, as I believe it reflects the values of our constituents,” but did not add his signature because he thought that issuing the statement violated the state’s Open Meeting Law because it was not on the Select Board’s agenda. Forcier said he is now “perceived to be a racist.”

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said that the town counsel has since advised him that the issuing of the statement could have violated the Open Meeting Law and apologized to the public and Select Board members, though other board members disputed this claim or were unsure.

The attorney general’s office will review the complaint to determine whether a violation occurred. 

Miles questioned Forcier’s intentions at the meeting, stating that Forcier did not respond to any emails asking for thoughts on the statement, and despite being aware of its writing, did not submit an Open Meeting Law complaint until two days after it was posted on the town’s website without his signature.

“That conversation never came up, so I am frustrated by that,” Miles said. “That seems to have not been the original intent, because there was no participation, and now we’re trying to have this conversation.”

She added, “No board member said, ‘Maybe this is a violation and we need to talk about it,’ and that’s what working as part of a board is supposed to include.”

Select Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah Etelman said she does not believe that issuing the statement violated the Open Meeting Law.

“I think the Select Board has a right and a duty to take a stand on anti-racism, and that was the intent,” Edelman said. “The intent wasn’t to slight anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings. The intent was to be positive, and I still think that’s the intent.”

During the meeting, Etelman twice stated that Forcier laughed at her as she spoke about the statement’s intent.

While Sullivan thinks an Open Meeting Law violation possibly occurred, he said Select Board members could vote to accept the statement at the Tuesday night meeting, as the statement and alleged violation were included on the agenda. Forcier pushed back against this idea, stating that the agenda item only concerned discussion of the violation.

Sullivan, Miles and Sarah disagreed with Forcier, and all members eventually voted to pass the statement, though Forcier said he voted yes “with reservations.”

“Again, I don’t think proper discussion has taken place, but so be it,” Forcier said.

Select Board Chairman Jeff Cyr thanked residents who contacted the Select Board in support of its anti-racism stance.

“It is unfortunate that we’re dealing with this particular item,” Cyr said.

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