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My Turn: Nothing unethical about a library holding candidate meet-and-greet

  • BERLIN



Wednesday, November 15, 2017

As vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Greenfield Public library, I feel that it is my responsibility to set the record straight regarding the recent misunderstanding over the library’s co-sponsorship (with the League of Women Voters and the Friends of the Greenfield Public Library) of a candidate meet-and-greet that had been scheduled for Oct. 12, but was cancelled at the last minute.

To begin with, our library director did not make the decision to co-sponsor the event on her own — she first sought the approval of our Board of Trustees. We wholeheartedly gave her that approval because we believed that it was in keeping with a public library’s mission to ensure that we have a well-informed electorate. We were also aware that similar events had regularly been held at other public libraries in Massachusetts. Additionally, as chief of the Western Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office for eight years, I was required to be well versed in state ethics law. I could see no reason why sponsoring such an event would violate any of its provisions, and it turned out, I was correct.

By the time I became aware of any concerns, the event had been cancelled. I, nonetheless, immediately sought a written opinion from the State Ethics Commission. The Greenfield Recorder knew I had sought this opinion, yet chose to publish stories suggesting that our library director had somehow acted inappropriately before waiting to learn what the commission had determined.

I received my response from the State Ethics Commission on Oct. 25. I did not release it until Nov. 9, two days after Greenfield’s election, because I wanted to avoid any suggestion that the release was politically motivated. In its opinion, the commission concluded that the meet-and-greet we had planned was not political activity and that it did not violate the ethics law. The ethics opinion makes it abundantly clear that neither our director, the Library Board of Trustees, the League of Women Voters, nor the Friends of the Greenfield Public Library violated any of the provisions of the State Ethics Law.

Whenever a misunderstanding occurs, there are lessons to be learned. In this case, the library could have sought opinions ahead of time, and those with questions could have asked them sooner, allowing the library more time to respond. I am hopeful that with this information, the public is now fully informed and understands that what the library intended to do with respect to the meet-and-greet was legal, ethical and consistent with our mission. It is not only appropriate for a public library to provide opportunities for civic education and public discourse; it is our responsibility to do so.

The owner of Hawks & Reed and its staff did a magnificent service for the town when they offered to move the event to their facility. I want to also thank the staff of the Greenfield Public Library, the League of Women Voters, and the Friends of the Greenfield Public Library for all the work that took place prior to the event, and to congratulate the citizens and candidates who attended an event that was organized to make the voters better informed before the election. I hope that in two years, this event will be held at the Greenfield Public Library.

Edward Berlin is on the Board of Trustees for the Greenfield Public Library.