The ruts on the riverbank The ruts on the riverbank
By Jim Conley
Brookline TAB, December 16, 2004

In the last installment of this column, we examined the notion that Brookline Town Government and its national counterpart have more in common than being situated near silt-filled rivers. Both are polarized by hostility to outsiders.

A case in point is the reception Brookline Town Meeting gave to a citizen petitioning the body on the issue of corporal punishment. This gentleman drafted a resolution, stood on the street to collect signatures and introduced a warrant article urging Brookline parents to consider the long-term effects of excessive physical punishment. Little did he know that punishment was what he would receive in return.

Our well-meaning citizen (a man with letters in the field of psychology) viewed the resolution as a way to raise awareness on the need for parents to refrain from slugging the kids. He got awareness all right, as several town officials and the yahoos in the right-wing media subjected him to a steady stream of public ridicule.

When he first offered the resolution last spring, Town Meeting moved to postpone a vote on the matter indefinitely. Undeterred, the petitioner was back at last month's fall session asking for an up-or-down vote. It was then that he was branded by the not-so-distinguished member from Precinct 11 as "narcissistic and grandiose in the extreme."

So what's the big deal? Nothing less than that which separates a free and open society from one of tyranny is the right of citizens to petition their government without fear of retribution, humiliation or harm. When an elected official smears a citizen in public, a dangerous line is crossed. It then becomes the responsibility of those in positions of authority to admonish the offender so as to provide safe harbor for future petitioners.

A point lost on the Town Meeting moderator, who says he "was not paying attention" when the slur was made.

That's not to say he hasn't been engaged on the question.

When the resolution was first considered, some Town Meeting members fretted over a vote on this controversial measure. It was the moderator to the rescue, writing to all members on the day of Town Meeting: "A couple of TMMs have asked me how best to proceed if one (a) doesn't believe that this is a proper matter for consideration by Town Meeting, but (b) does not wish to be perceived as supporting corporal punishment by voting against the resolution. A motion to postpone the subject matter of the article indefinitely would be an appropriate way to proceed."

Try as I might, I can't find the language in the town charter that distinguishes a proper matter for citizen petition from an improper one. Plus, I thought the moderator's job was to conduct town business, not look for ways to postpone it on behalf of political panderers.

Last month's Town Meeting debate on the resolution could easily be Town Meeting's high-water mark for supercilious behavior. The position taken by the selectmen in opposing this measure (after supporting it the first time) was characteristically inane. But when the member from Precinct 11 opened her mouth, I thought I had mistakenly taped an episode of "South Park."

Upon taking the podium, she began a narrative that recounted her attendance at the Brookline Arts Center 40th Anniversary Bash - even describing her wardrobe for the evening. She went on to say that she was busy chatting among friends when the moderator approached her and asked if she wanted to "sign up for spanking."

Among those assembled at Town Meeting, this story and the moderator's embarrassment led to much giggling and guffawing. You had to see it folks, dozens of adults carrying on like fourth-graders because somebody mentioned spanking in an ambiguous context. Not content that juvenile innuendo alone would show her scorn, she launched into an attack on the petitioner, assigning his motives as consistent with a personality disorder.

One might conclude that this episode alone is hardly a threat to the future of open government in Brookline. But it is hardly ever the case that freedoms are dispensed with overnight. We lose them through a process of erosion, one hardly noticeable at first and hard to reverse when noticeable.

At the time of this writing, the moderator has yet to acquaint himself with the offense that occurred while he dozed and has failed to discuss the matter with the offender. I know others have.

It means something that a gentleman who believed in something bigger than his own interest went before your Town Meeting only to be humiliated and shamed. And it means even more that we have a Town Meeting moderator who can't see the ruts on the riverbank this creates, even after they have been pointed out to him.Jim Conley is a regular TAB columnist. Send comments to

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