In the Arena: Election season is upon us

For The Recorder
Thursday, September 07, 2017

A quick reminder to the five percent or so likely to show up — Greenfield has a preliminary election this coming Tuesday.

There is only one race on the ballot, a five-way tilt for town councilor at large. The candidates are incumbent At Large Councilor Penny Ricketts, current Precinct 8 Councilor Ashli Stempel, current Precinct 6 Councilor Maria Burge, former Precinct 8 candidate Andrew Killeen and former Franklin County Register of Deeds Joe Gochinski, who also previously served on the 27-member town council back in the selectboard-town manager days.

The four top vote getters go on the November ballot for the two available at large seats, and it’s quite likely, given the lack of coverage this “race” has generated, that this one is going to be decided largely by name recognition, although there is another issue which may wind up being a factor.

Possibly the most emotional debate in recent memory took when the council considered, and eventually voted down, a Safe Cities Ordinance, which would have codified into law an existing mayoral executive order that no town official would assist in federal efforts to round up undocumented immigrants who live in Greenfield.

The main argument in favor is that the ordinance would contain the force of law regardless of who happened to be sitting the mayor’s office. The executive order issued by current Mayor Bill Martin contains language which prohibits employees from assisting in deportation efforts without the “express consent of the mayor,” setting up His Honor as the sole arbiter of whether the town gets involved in such matters.

Though three of the five candidates are incumbents, only two, Ricketts and Burge, took part in that debate. Stempel was away on vacation, and has since indicated that she would have been a yes vote, which still wouldn’t have affected the final 6-4 vote tally.

Ricketts and Burge both spoke at length during the discussion, taking very different positions. Burge argued against the measure in an emotional, tear-filled statement saying when she swore an oath to defend the Constitution, both as a member of the military and later a police officer, that meant respecting the rule of law, which meant you can’t pick and choose which laws you want to obey.

Burge knew going in that her position wasn’t going to be popular, and went so far as to call it “political suicide,” in reference to the upcoming election, where she, like Stempel, is abdicating her precinct seat to run at large.

Ricketts argued in favor, saying that she’d done a lot of research on the issue, which included talking to immigrants about their plight, during which she learned exactly how difficult it is to get into this country legally. Ricketts also said that while she understood the arguments against the ordinance, she was not willing to “sell her soul” to vote against it, a comment which, not surprisingly, drew a huge reaction from the large crowd which came out to speak in favor of it.

Ricketts also argued that her position, like Burge’s, carried an element of “risk,” which was clearly not the case. This was a no-lose prospect for her.

As early as this past February, it was apparent to most political observers that the votes for this ordinance were not there. And on the off chance that it did somehow narrowly pass, it wouldn’t be with the kind of majority needed to overturn any likely mayoral veto.

It was also clear that the size of the crowd and the public outcry factored largely into Ricketts’ decision. She admitted as much herself, saying the emails and calls, all of which she made a point of returning, definitely played a role in her decision, which effectively means that it was framed more by politics than policy, which may not sit well with some voters.

There were a lot of things I found both intriguing and unsettling about the debate, where a lot of speakers seemed to believe that passage of this ordinance was necessary to send a “message” that Greenfield is a safe community. As much as I respect the passion of that argument, it’s not a reason to pass a law. That’s more appropriately done by a non-binding resolution. Towns don’t, or shouldn’t, pass ordinances to make people feel good, especially when they have the potential to generate as many unintended consequences as this one did.

In the end, I think Ricketts gained more votes than she lost that night. The same probably won’t be true for Burge, but we won’t know for sure until after Tuesday. And if she does, somehow, end up in the final four, that could tell you a lot about what the voters of this community really think about this particular policy initiative.

See you at the polls, I hope.

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