, Derry, New Hampshire

July 25, 2013

Editorial: An uncivil war

Derry News

---- — Town Councilors Bradley Benson and Neil Wetherbee walked out on their constituents at a council meeting July 9.

Ironically, the two stormed out before the meeting adjourned during a discussion on the public forum portion of council meetings.

More than two hours and 20 minutes into the meeting, Councilor Mark Osborne broached the subject, saying he believed there ought to be more give and take between councilors and members of the public who attend and speak out.

The discussion — and it was that only in the loosest definition of the word — followed that night’s public forum, during which just two taxpayers spoke.

One of those two, real estate agent and landlord Steve Trefethen, speaks at almost every Town Council meeting. What he has to say generally doesn’t sit well with councilors or Town Administrator John Anderson.

In fact, before the public forum, Anderson took it upon himself to tell the council and audience just how much the town has spent on legal fees battling Trefethen in court. Understandably, Trefethen approached the microphone and responded. Again, Anderson interjected, blurting out, “What he says is not correct.”

It was ugly, but there was more to come.

Anderson, now on paid administrative leave while under police investigation, was out of line. Trefethen may have been, too, but he’s a taxpayer, not a public employee paid nearly $125,000 to work for the town.

But he may be the least of the problem.

Benson and Wetherbee, who often have found themselves on the short end of votes since the elections in March, apparently believe the public has no place at Town Council meetings. Or, perhaps, they do, but believe taxpayers should be seen and not heard.

“I’m not seeing a lot of productive discussion coming out of public forum,” Wetherbee said.

The same often can be said for internal discussions as well. The tension is knife sharp and the council so divided, Chairman Michael Fairbanks is often found floundering in the middle of the mess.

“This is our meeting, not a public meeting,” Benson said.

He went on to say he’s seen the “same five or six, eight people” use the public forum during his six years on the council.

“We very rarely see new faces,” he said.

Small wonder there. It’s one of the least welcoming spots in town.

Those remarks prompted a quick and loud response from Councilor Al Dimmock, himself a regular speaker during public forums before his election to the council in March. Voices were raised, fingers pointed. Fouls were made from both sides of the divide.

“You don’t have a right to shut me up,” Dimmock said as Benson gathered his paperwork and rose from his seat before he and Wetherbee walked out.

Sadly, neither Anderson nor Fairbanks had anything to say during the embarrassing exchange.

The remaining councilors moved to adjourn the meeting that already had ended.

It’s past time for Fairbanks to step up and maintain order at these meetings. Last month, we cut him some slack. It’s a fractious board at best and he was new to the job of chairman.

There have been several discussions about public comment, following the town charter and Robert’s Rules to maintain order and civility, but little has changed. If anything, the atmosphere has deteriorated.

All seven councilors were elected by residents to represent them in the seats of power. The changes that came with the March election made the council more representative, but clearly shifted the majority.

It’s time to get over it, represent the taxpayers who put you there to the best of your ability and treat those who disagree with you — fellow councilors and the public — with respect and decency.

Of course, Town Council meetings are public forums and taxpayers must be allowed to say their piece without fear of attack or reprisal.

While Fairbanks is in an unenviable position, it’s one he accepted and he needs to step up — yesterday.

And any town councilors who don’t think the public has a voice at their meetings ought to rethink why they’re sitting at the front of the room.