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Curro issues plea for civility

Joseph A. Curro Jr., a member of the Arlington Select Board, delivered the following statement at the end of the May 4 board meeting. YourArlington requested it for publication.

Joseph Curro Jr., Select Board, 2015
Curro urges mutual respect.

Every year, Town Meeting members raise their hands and pledge that they will “treat others with mutual respect and will conduct [themselves] in a civil manner that is becoming of an elected Town Meeting member.”

It is so disappointing that -- even as we witness countless acts of kindness in the face of crisis -we have also seen a disturbing erosion of civility in our town’s public discourse, often involving current Town Meeting Members or individuals who seek to serve in that capacity. It has almost become a sport among some to see who can launch the most inflammatory verbal assaults on members of this board and -- most disturbingly -- on our hardworking professional staff.

Some of this has taken place on camera. In response to a value engineering decision of the Arlington High School Building Committee, one Town Meeting member launched an ​ad hominem​ attack on the town manager. In describing this project, which is overwhelmingly supported by voters, she referred to it as “Chapdelaine’s Big Dig.” I thank my colleague, Mr. Dunn, for calling foul on this behavior. [See Dunn's comments posted to his blog >>

In response to the chair’s efforts to maintain a well-ordered meeting -- something that every Town Meeting member should understand and value -- we were called “dictatorial.”

Off-camera, members of the board have been called “undemocratic” and “authoritarian,” in both cases by Town Meeting members or Town Meeting candidates. At one of our last meetings before the Covid-19 crisis heated up, we witnessed shouted profanity and verbal attacks against two of our most respected police officers when attendees disagreed with a decision of the board.

... [A]s someone who spent a considerable amount of time in the U.S.S.R. and devoted two years of his life assisting refugees escaping Soviet oppression, I am completely outraged by the comparison to that regime."

Raised voices have become more prevalent than at any time since I was elected to the board eight years ago. A few months ago, members of this board took time off from their day jobs to engage in racial equity and inclusion training organized by the town manager and his leadership team. This was a direct response to resident suggestions. Attending members of the public were invited to participate fully in this board training. Despite this, at the end of the four-hour session, we were shouted at for not doing enough and supposedly shutting out the very people we had welcomed to engage in the day’s program and to break bread with us.

2 recent cases

Two incidents over the past week are particularly offensive.

In one case, this board was compared to the Soviet Politburo, because images of attendees do not display during virtual meetings. A technical configuration issue with Zoom and the lack of speaker images was compared to the historical disenfranchisement of women and people of color. This is a disgusting distortion and insult to those who suffered and labored to make gains in the face of ​real​ struggles for civil rights.

Furthermore, as someone who spent a considerable amount of time in the U.S.S.R. and devoted two years of his life assisting refugees escaping Soviet oppression, I am completely outraged by the comparison to that regime. If this board and the town manager were truly devoted to stifling voices of dissent -- as some would have us believe -- we would not be appointing those
same voices to positions of public responsibility on town commissions ... something we have done several times over the past months.

In a second incident, a member of the public and Town Meeting candidate referred to the process of planning for our municipal election in this challenging time as “a sham” and accused the town of imposing a “poll tax.” That despite the fact that this town election will be the most publicized local election with the most public input into its planning and the most options for safe voting in the recent history of Arlington.

At our direction, the town manager has been working overtime with the clerk, board staff, town counsel, acting facilities director, Health and Human Services Department, Envision Arlington, League of Women Voters, Election Modernization Committee and others to pull off a very complicated logistical feat. More than 100 people participated in last week’s public forum on the election and provided very valuable input.

Let’s be clear. It is very dangerous to plant the seeds of doubt around the legitimacy of a free and fair election. We have seen that movie before, and it doesn’t end well.

Consider consequences

-- What are the consequences of the current decline in civility? For starters, dedicated volunteers have chosen to step back from town committees. As their public service has been debased, they have taken back time for family and other personal and professional pursuits. Others will follow, and I fear that -- if this trend continues unabated -- we will encounter difficulties recruiting and retaining talented professional staff.

All five of us have been duly elected by the voters of Arlington through our system of representative democracy. We are motivated by a desire to serve our neighbors, and we all take seriously the privilege we are given to make decisions on behalf of those same neighbors.

We do so based on our best informed judgment, not in response to the loudest or most demanding voices.

Not everyone will agree with every decision. But everyone is free to voice alternate views, and everyone is free to run for office and vote for new representatives if they are unsatisfied with the town’s current leadership. Indeed, many are availing themselves of those opportunities. All of this is just fine and as it should be.

What is not fine is to express our disagreements through insults, profanity, hyperbole, false equivalencies, or name-calling. As people who have a declared love for Arlington, I have to think we are all better than this.

To be sure, this is not a problem that is unique to Arlington. Our national dialogue is plagued by contentiousness and nastiness. And at this year’s Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) annual meeting, panel discussions on the topic of civility drew standing-room-only audiences.

Reestablish norms

-- I ask all people of goodwill to help us hit the reset button and reestablish social norms that restore balance to our civic polity. Tonight was a really good meeting, so -- God help us -- maybe we are turning the corner.

I once again ask Arlington residents to be what our friend Elaine Shea would call “upstanders.”

I suggest to my colleagues that after the new board is seated in June, it might be worth a more in-depth discussion about any measures we can take to foster a more positive environment that
discourages bad behavior. I brought back a number of ideas from the MMA that I am happy to share and which might form the basis for such a discussion.

Last, I refer to the tagline that our chair, Ms. Mahon, has used in her frequent email updates to the community during the difficult days of the Covid-19 pandemic: “When Arlington faces adversity, we come together and find a way through it. Let's take care of each other.”


This viewpoint was published Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Town of Arlington to LGBTQIA+ students: You belong
 

Comments

Lynette Culverhouse on Wednesday, 06 May 2020 11:09
Response to Joe Curro

Thank you Joe for your plea for civility. As a member of Arlington Fights Racism I have been attacked and received comments that are far from civil on numerous occasions. It is unpleasant and hurtful and doesn't help to move us forward on any issue. We need to learn to have those difficult conversations where we may have different opinions but we can listen and become flexible with our own opinions. These are challenging times. The world will never be the same again and we will have to adapt to that together. Civility, respect and kindness towards all is essential if we want a civically engaged and inclusive town. I respect our leaders for listening to the public about the elections and making decisions based on that input. But isn't that what leadership is about, representing the community, acting on input and making decisions that cover as many bases as possible. So let's move forward understanding that everyone is doing the best they can and that occasionally we all make mistakes. Let's not be cowed into not speaking up but rather speak up with conviction, respect and clarity and a willingness to engage in conversation. Let's continue to hold our leaders accountable because they are our voices and let's do it all with civility.

Thank you Joe for your plea for civility. As a member of Arlington Fights Racism I have been attacked and received comments that are far from civil on numerous occasions. It is unpleasant and hurtful and doesn't help to move us forward on any issue. We need to learn to have those difficult conversations where we may have different opinions but we can listen and become flexible with our own opinions. These are challenging times. The world will never be the same again and we will have to adapt to that together. Civility, respect and kindness towards all is essential if we want a civically engaged and inclusive town. I respect our leaders for listening to the public about the elections and making decisions based on that input. But isn't that what leadership is about, representing the community, acting on input and making decisions that cover as many bases as possible. So let's move forward understanding that everyone is doing the best they can and that occasionally we all make mistakes. Let's not be cowed into not speaking up but rather speak up with conviction, respect and clarity and a willingness to engage in conversation. Let's continue to hold our leaders accountable because they are our voices and let's do it all with civility.
Hannah Simon on Tuesday, 05 May 2020 18:44
Joe Curro post

I am so sad to see and hear about all of the abuses at a time when we should be supporting each other. I noticed even before the pandemic put us all on edge that folks on the Arlington List serve were attacking and impugning the motives not only of Town and elected officials but VOLUNTEERS on various committees and boards. These are folks who are donating hours and hours of their time and expertise to serve our town. School Committee members are also volunteers and Select board members are hardly remunerated. So sad. Thank you Joe for all you have done and continue to do for our town. You do NOT deserve this kind of treatment.

:( I am so sad to see and hear about all of the abuses at a time when we should be supporting each other. I noticed even before the pandemic put us all on edge that folks on the Arlington List serve were attacking and impugning the motives not only of Town and elected officials but VOLUNTEERS on various committees and boards. These are folks who are donating hours and hours of their time and expertise to serve our town. School Committee members are also volunteers and Select board members are hardly remunerated. So sad. Thank you Joe for all you have done and continue to do for our town. You do NOT deserve this kind of treatment.
John Bradshaw on Tuesday, 05 May 2020 16:26
Bravo, Joe.

Best thing I've ever read here.

Best thing I've ever read here.
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