Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Enforced Silence Or A Lack Of Vision – Or Both?

Ken O’Brien

I recently ran an image that showed the School Committee chair saying that she could show terrorists how to constrain free speech without engendering blow back.

A few critics thought my expression was over the top or lacked any humor.

Perhaps they missed the point that I was making.

Whether the item was humorous or not was somewhat irrelevant. What was intended was to illustrate the irony that the ability to express an opinion could be far more effectively limited by distorting the rules than by actions that inspired popular outrage.

Take what the School Committee has done.

They have used a committee policy to silence anyone who might speak out against department personnel as violating their rules. However, the committee has always maintained that the public input portion of their meetings took place before the meeting was called to order.

Anyone can clearly see that a committee policy that restricts free speech cannot be enforced outside the context of their meeting.

This came to a head when Southbridge High School Senior Sarai McNeill attempted to address her concerns regarding the conduct of the Superintendent of Schools at a school assembly.

As a consequence of pointing this out the committee engaged in an obvious exercise in double talk attempting to maintain that even though the meeting hadn’t been called to order it actually was in order. This was, of course, a direct contradiction of their prior position.

Now they have redrafted policy BEDH supposedly to circumvent this dilemma. Of course, unless I am willing to travel to 25 Cole Ave, I have no idea what this new policy says. The committee, through its adoption of a consent agenda, has guaranteed that we will not know what it says until after it is adopted. All of this from a leadership that promised increased transparency.

Speaking to this point, one has to wonder what happened to their subcommittee on Family and Community Engagement. We don’t hear from this anymore. But we still treat the Sped Pac Liaison as a legitimate subcommittee rather than having similar status for groups such as the PTA. If the Sped Pac Liaison wants to report on a monthly or quarterly basis that’s one thing. But to accord them status above all other special interest groups is merely pandering to a powerful special interest lobby.

This focus on the School Committee does not exempt the Town Council from scrutiny.

While we have experienced a period of relative peace on that body following the blessed departure of former Councilor and frequent Chair Nickolla, one has to question what they have actually accomplished during the period.

We have just entered our second year without a permanent Town Manager.

Granted there was a reasonable (though not necessary) suspension of the search due to the ill-conceived effort to return to a town meeting form of government. But even then the effort was allowed to languish long after the issue was decided.

The council seemed to remember its obligation to appoint a Charter Review Committee only after it was pointed out on this blog. It still has yet to be appointed.

They did manage, however, to enact a tax increase with precious little effort to cut expenses.

Now we hear talk of a 1% cut in town budgets come April. We’ll see if that happens as well if it actually survives until December when the tax rate is set.

However, we hear a lot about the Big Ole’ Turkey Bowl. And we seem to have the town’s elite consumed with a 200th Anniversary celebration that will celebrate what? 50 years of decline since 1966?

In addition we have the new Governor announcing the release of $100 million in State infrastructure funds. Of this, Southbridge will get almost a quarter of a million dollars.

Will this be used to reduce any taxpayer funds used for this purpose?

In addition, it engenders the question, “Why is a Governor who is confronted with a $500 million budget shortfall spending $100 million this way?” Where does he plan to make up the outstanding half billion dollars?

We see the council using most of the ever dwindling landfill royalty funds to finance the town employee pension programs. This while the town payroll continues to expand. When Paul Zotos was let go he was the sole employee of the Cable TV operation. Now we have three. Similar expansion in personnel along with expanding salaries have occurred throughout the town. Yet, how many employees in the private sector still have pension plans with their employer?

The fact is that there has been a concerted effort to silence public dissatisfaction with policy choices. In both the School Committee and the Town Council there has been a pronounced effort to restrict dissenting opinions to the level of subcommittees from where they are seldom if ever heard by the public.

And, for the most part, the public has said very little. There is a brief fillip of outrage every time a new tax rate is announced. But, other than that, the public is ignored except during campaign season.

Now, I don’t entirely blame these public bodies for all our ills. The silence of the voting public engenders its own penalty. It allows those who have a much more direct and obvious vested stake to exercise undue influence on decisions. 

It may also be the result of a distinct paucity of ideas. As I mentioned, very few of us get pensions any longer from private employers like many of our parents did. Maybe this is something that should be addressed and corrected. Or, conversely, perhaps we should ask why public employees should be treated differently. Why shouldn’t they have to rely on social security and private investments like everyone else?

George Bernard Shaw observed that “Democracy is a system of government that guarantees that one gets what they deserve.” We are certainly proving the case.


  1. Nothing like sitting in a dark, cold house.

  2. Going, Going, Gon . . .January 14, 2015 at 12:46 PM

    Well speaking of silence, what happened to Brent Abrahamson's voice. I watched the meeting last night and didn't hear him say a word. Has he run out of people to assail? Or perhaps Monday's editorial in the Telegram demonstrated that it's more than those evil bloggers who know the reality of our failing school system.
    It will be interested to see what the women from the State have to say at the next meeting. If they come to the podium and tell us that things are going well, then we should all pull our kids out of public education. The State's credibility is on the line.

  3. It is interesting to note that Millbury has moved its retirement age for special police officers to 70. This could be the start of a trend per today's Telegram.


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