Town Manager Ashamed with the State of Public Discourse

The following statement from Town Manager Robert W. LeLacheur, Jr. was read at the October 24 Board of Selectmen Meeting.

As a FINCOM volunteer for 8 years, I was impressed at how effective local government was at doing its business in a non-partisan way, and was so different from the federal and state governments. I was especially impressed with Reading’s Town Meeting, where differing philosophies collided in a collaborative and collegial manner, and just about everyone in the room knew each other. In the fall of 2005 I joined the town government as Assistant Town Manager/Finance Director.

The night that a June 2006 Special Town Meeting debated whether to join the MWRA or build a new Water Treatment Plant will always stand out to me. Two clears sides of thought emerged, each with many seemingly legitimate points. Debate lasted for hours. Several speakers stood and explained how they came in to the meeting with one opinion, but through the civil discourse they changed their minds because other members spoke eloquently. Interestingly this happened on both sides of the issue.

File Photo – Town Manager Robert W. LeLacheur at Reading Town Meeting

The final vote to join the MWRA failed to achieve a needed 23 vote as 89 voted yes but 53 voted no (63%). The final vote to authorize debt to build a new Water Treatment Plant also failed to achieve a 23 vote (36%). Town Meeting then agreed to reconsider the vote to join the MWRA. Impassioned speakers from the original 53 no votes rose to speak. One after another they urged their fellow no voters to change their vote even if they would not change their views. They spoke of the higher duty to the entire community, and of a deep respect – despite the fundamental disagreement – for their fellow Town Meeting members that had voted yes. The revised vote passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 113-34. I believe this was one of the proudest moments in the history of civil discourse in the Town of Reading.Things are quite different today. Mirroring the decline we see nationally, discourse in the Town of Reading continues to spiral on a downward slope.

Last week I had to refer two incidents of discourse to the Police Department for investigation. The first was an alleged threat overheard after a public meeting directed towards an employee; the second is attached to this packet and is directed at one appointed board, the elected Board of Selectmen, and possibly at employees. I have highlighted sections that have been questioned.

Over the past two years the Mayors and Managers I meet with regularly all lament this path we find ourselves on. We have discussed how our leadership positions are being ‘weaponized’ by some that seek political gain. We recently debated holding a multi-town Local Government Day, and realized it could go horribly wrong given the climate out there, and lead to even more discord.

Recently I was asked to share remarks at a community meeting with Reading Embraces Diversity. I have attached my opening remarks and direct you towards the highlighted section.

The local actions this past week are not OK.

I have also attached recent remarks made by my friend, Melrose Mayor Rob Dolan, in a radio interview. All of his remarks are well worth reading, but especially note his closing paragraph which I will cite here:

“It must be pointed out, however, that there really is no partisan way to pick up the trash, or plow snow, or plant trees, or fix a park, or make sure there is enough space in our schools, or keep a neighborhood safe. Party affiliation and ideology are a fact and should be celebrated as institutions that have made America stronger. However, they are less important at the local level than the basic principles of good government—and on this we can all agree.”

All town employees strive towards providing cost-effective ‘good government’ to the community of Reading. We have always been subject to verbal abuse that few of you would ever tolerate in your lines of work. Over the years, the critics that entered Town Hall to speak with me usually left with a better understanding and often with an entirely different view. As Town Manager I expect the verbal abuse, though I wish it were all directed towards me and not my staff.

Recently this behavior has taken on a partisan politics tone, and surfaced more at public meetings. In about ten short years in Reading, we have plunged from the proudest moments of civil discourse to circumstances that I am ashamed of.

I have always been able to explain to town staff that the proverbial silent majority in town respects their work product as well as their work ethic. Today, local leaders express similar sentiments to each other for moral support as discourse in our respective communities continues to decay.

I ask the entire community the question that local leaders have asked each other for the past two years: “What are we going to do about it?”

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