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In The Arena

In the Arena: Change the conversation

One of my favorite guilty pleasures returns this weekend, when Season 2 of “The Newsroom” debuts on HBO.

For those who haven’t watched it, the series focuses on the exploits of a fictional network cable news show anchored by Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. The show has several story lines too numerous to mention here, but it’s the brilliant writing of creator Aaron Sorkin that makes this appointment viewing for me whenever it is on.

I felt the most intriguing part of Season 1 was McAvoy’s desire to elevate the level of public debate. He called it “a mission to civilize,” a grand plan that Sorkin spends most of the season unraveling, mainly because of corporate concerns that force McAvoy to cover stories that don’t have anything to do with what he believes are the real issues of importance to his viewers.

Granted, it’s just a TV show, but based on what we’ve been seeing recently, a “mission to civilize” might be just what Franklin County politics needs right now.

In Erving, we have a board of selectmen trying to replace the town’s fire chief for reasons that haven’t been fully explained; while in Conway, the selectmen’s chairman is vowing not to talk to any member of The Recorder staff because he doesn’t like the coverage the town is receiving. In Rowe, the town is trying to figure out what to do about its school superintendency now that Michael Buonoconti has decided to leave, while down in “the city known as the town of Greenfield,” the mayor and Town Council continue to spar over a number of burning issues, like when a mayoral appointment actually becomes official.

I got a little taste of it this past week, when I admitted that Albert Norman made a good point at a recent council meeting, when he suggested that policy board members should be appointed not based on their personal political beliefs, but their ability to rule objectively on individual projects.

It’s nothing I haven’t said before, but, judging from the reaction, you would have thought I endorsed Al for mayor. Some people just couldn’t understand why I would give him credit for anything, and I suddenly had a better understanding of why Congress is such a mess. How can anything get done in an environment where people on both sides of the aisle not only refuse to work with each other, but are quick to punish those who do?

Though somewhat annoying, I found the reaction to be a welcome reminder that, though it doesn’t always seem it, the big-box argument continues to be a bitter, divisive sludge that bubbles under the surface of Greenfield’s public debate, just waiting for a release point that allows it to spew up again.

It also led me to question whether there is enough common ground left to ever bridge this gap — hence the “mission to civilize,” the seeds for which, believe it or not, may have already been planted.

“It’s been misconstrued that there is this faction out there that is against Walmart and for Walmart,” At-Large Greenfield Town Councilor Patrick Devlin said. “I think everybody pretty much agrees that we need a store, but we don’t need one that is 135,000 square feet.”

Devlin’s words didn’t really hit home until the reactions from the Norman comment began to flow, and I heard similar sentiments expressed from people on both sides. I actually started to think that it might just be possible for Greenfield to squeeze this 20-year-old increasingly bitter lemon into the unifying tonic this town has for so long sought.

I know, crazy idea — even crazier still coming from the guy who has been accused of throwing gas on this flame simply to sell newspapers and advance his own career. I see where people might feel that way, but believing that I’m the problem isn’t going to do anything to elevate the discussion. To do that will require that some other people become involved.

It’s going to have to start with Mayor Bill Martin and the Mark Wisnewski-led Town Council agreeing to deep-six the ideological bickering and focus on finding common solutions to the town’s problems, this one in particular. The timing for that couldn’t be better, as the town embarks on a master planning process that could provide a forum for both sides to work together rather than tearing each other apart.

It’s also up to the residents of Greenfield to forgive the battles of the past and start believing in their town again — an element that I feel has been missing for far too long.

I’m not naive enough to believe that this mission to civilize will be the thing that puts the big-box debate in Greenfield’s rear-view mirror, but it may be a way to start. I plan to work on my end to change the conversation. I can only pray my hometown is willing to do the same.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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