Editorial: A town councilor’s abuse of power is never acceptable

Saturday, November 11, 2017

When is it acceptable for a town councilor to subject a town employee to a tongue-lashing? Is it allowed when a councilor or some of his constituents are frustrated by vigorous or lax enforcement of parking rules and the councilor himself gets what he considers an unjustified ticket?

That seems to have been the circumstance that led to allegations of bullying and abuse of power by Mayor William Martin against Town Council President Brickett Allis, who allegedly launched a “profanity-laced tirade” at the police chief after receiving a parking ticket he felt was unfair.

It’s troubling to hear that anyone, let alone the town’s top policy maker in charge of the police department’s budget, would personally complain to the police chief about a ticket, and berate him to the point the chief would feel compelled to complain to the mayor.

Chief Robert Haigh is a respectful, thoughtful public servant who has learned to take a lot of guff in his line of work. It’s hard to imagine what sort of “profanity-laced tirade” Allis must have unloaded to provoke a complaint to the mayor.

“While I have a thick skin, and have been yelled and swore at during the course of my career, I have yet to have that type of language and disrespect imparted on me by an elected or other town official,” Haigh wrote in a letter to the mayor.

Haigh said the altercation stemmed from a parking ticket Allis received when his car apparently broke down and was parked in front of an auto repair garage on Deerfield Street. Haigh said Allis did not ask him to void the ticket, but was irate that the parking enforcement officers issued a ticket in the first place, and made not-so-veiled references to cut the parking enforcement budget.

If Allis didn’t mince words about his parking ticket or parking enforcement, neither did Martin, who in his own letter to Allis, said that to expect special treatment or privilege due to one’s elected position is an abuse of power.

“The bullying behavior by way of cursing with loud speech and delivering denigrating insults sets a poor example for all and demoralizes staff,” Martin wrote. “It is insulting, offensive, uncivil, juvenile and unprofessional.”

Allis has admitted to the exchange, saying he later apologized, but on Friday threw the “bullying” invective and a few others back at the mayor in a lengthy letter complaining about selective parking enforcement and the mayor’s and chief’s “cowardly” attack on him at a time when Allis and his wife were recently coping with a family emergency.

This vitriolic exchange of letters is discouraging for those of us who think the public’s business can be handled calmly and respectfully by our elected leaders through civil discussion rather than a bitter exchange of letters.

In his letter, Martin also scolded Allis’ wing man on the council, Vice President Isaac Mass, who apparently also had problems with parking enforcement and had an exchange with a town hall employee who Martin says felt bullied afterward.

Martin says he will refer any further reports from municipal employees about bullying, intimidation or funding threats from elected officials to the state Ethics Commission. Town Councilor Rudy Renaud has called for a council investigation of the matter.

“I think what (a council review) will say is this was either a whole lot of people behaving badly, but it doesn’t rise to the occasion of the Ethics Commission ... or, maybe, at the end of the day, it will tell us that we need to do something about the bullying that’s widespread throughout the town, including the council, or maybe it’s all misunderstanding,” Renaud said. “That’s why we need to do an investigation.”

For his part, Haigh said his biggest concern was the manner in which the interaction took place, and that Allis threatened to cut funding for parking enforcement.

There can be no excuse for the type of abuse the Town Council president apparently heaped on Haigh. It shouldn’t happen in one’s personal life, let alone in public life. As for complaints town councilors may have about town management, there is a chain of command in town government, and it doesn’t run from the Town Council president’s desk to the police chief or any other town employee.

If the council president is unhappy about how the police department spends its money, or doesn’t like the town’s parking policy, or doesn’t like how the mayor discharges his duties, that’s a perfectly legitimate issue for him, or Mass, to raise, in civil tones at a council meeting.

The answer to when it’s acceptable for a town councilor to threaten town employees and their budgets in a fit of pique — never.