Editorial: Mass right and wrong in flap over Greenfield candidates night

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

We believe in the importance of constructive political discussion and exchange of information — and in events that foster a more politically engaged citizenry. So, we support events like last week’s League of Women Voters’ meet the candidates forum in Greenfield, which was nearly derailed.

We have little doubt that Town Council Vice President Isaac Mass also supports civic engagement. We’ve watched his own engagement in town politics for years, since his days as a young Republican, although we don’t always agree with his policy positions. And that’s fine.

But Mass was unhelpful in the way he raised an assortment of objections to the League’s meet-and-greet for Town Council and School Committee candidates held last Thursday.

The event, to which all candidates were invited, was organized with lots of help by Greenfield Library Director Ellen Boyer — too much help, it seems.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mass raised several conflict of interest concerns about how the Greenfield Public Library event had been organized. Some of his objections seemed far-fetched, but ultimately the state Ethics Commission advised the town clerk there had been some technical conflicts of interest because Boyer had so deeply involved the public library in organizing the political event.

To make matters right meant extricating the library as a sponsor/organizer at the last minute, including perhaps changing the venue, which Boyle concluded would prove too difficult on short notice. So she canceled. That caused a social media blowback from civic-minded Greenfield voters and led to the League holding the event at the downtown Hawks and Reed building. Ultimately, the event went off successfully with scores of people attending.

The dust still has not settled entirely, and the Library Board of Trustees has asked the Ethics Commission for a formal opinion on how much the library can participate in candidate forums.

Did it have to be this way? Probably not.

Contrary to initial social media commentary, having the event at the library is not an issue. The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance told the Recorder political events may be held in public buildings as long as there is no fundraising. Mass contends his concern was more broadly about the library being the chief organizer of the event, and in particular, sending out a town email on Wednesday promoting the event. That email and how it was crafted, contends Mass, could be seen as favoring certain candidates and creating an unintentional conflict of interest.

He says he raised his concern with the town clerk (who supervises local elections) and ultimately registered a written protest to the clerk, mayor and Boyer, about 30 hours before the event. The town clerk checked with the Ethics Commission staff, who apparently concurred with some of Mass’s objections.

The Ethics Commission’s Advisory 11-1 governs the political activity of public employees, like Boyer. It says in part “a public employee may not engage in political activity, whether election-related or not, on his or her public work time; in a public building (except where equal access for such political activity is allowed to all similarly situated persons); or with the use of other public resources, such as staff time, public office space and facilities, public office equipment including computers, copiers and communication equipment.”

It would seem being the chief organizer and using library resources and town email to make the candidate night happen was inappropriate under this provision.

Boyer contends that the library was a legitimate sponsor of the event, and we don’t disagree. We think she and her library trustees have their heart in the right place wanting to foster political discourse in local elections.

But it certainly seems that, according to our state ethics laws at least, that Boyer injected herself too far. Sponsoring or hosting is one thing, apparently, but actively advertising and promoting on town time and emails is another.

Mass also was seen, by many on social media, as having gone too far.

Some saw Machiavellian political motives. Mass denies this, saying he just wanted to “keep everyone out of hot water.”

Yet, we can see how his actions raised suspicions about last minute dirty tricks, especially among his political opposites — because some of his concerns were off-base. For example, he said that as a charity under the federal 501(C)(3) tax code, the Friends of the Greenfield Public Library is not allowed to engage in political activity. But the library’s independent, nonprofit auxiliary wasn’t really involved in the forum and, according to the Internal Revenue Service, it could have been involved if it wanted because voter education activities, including presenting public forums conducted in a non-partisan manner, do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity.

And it’s almost laughable that Mass raised a red flag because the library “is likely to come before these very candidates for a multi-million dollar request in the next two years.” Did he really think hosting a meet-and-greet at the library would somehow influence Town Council votes for a new library building?

Rather than acting on Machiavellian motives, maybe Mass, a lawyer, was just off-base in his zeal for doing things the right way. But perhaps next time, rather than consulting with the town clerk and then firing off emails a day before an event, he could consult first with the library so everyone could cooperatively and calmly sort things out and avoid an unnecessary political firestorm. Had that happened, perhaps everyone involved would have figured out the event could have stayed at the library after all, with Boyer stepping away and with someone else, the Friends, or the League of Women Voters, stepping up.

And the voters would have engaged more on actual issues instead of a political sideshow.