Several city councilors in Everett, one of the Massachusetts cities hit hardest by the coronavirus, told their only Black colleague last week that if she is not willing to attend council meetings in person, she should resign.
Councilor Gerly Adrien has been participating in council meetings via Zoom because she is concerned about exposing a vulnerable family member to the virus. But at last Monday night’s meeting, she initially couldn’t be heard in the council chamber due to problems with the city’s equipment. Some of her colleagues, frustrated, demanded that she attend in person like they do, according to Adrien and local news reports.
Adrien, who became the first Black woman ever elected in Everett when she topped the ticket of at-large councilors last November, said she has no intention of resigning and attributed the request to “prejudice and microaggression.”
“If I can still vote, if I can still participate, why is that such a concern?” said Adrien, who has frequently come in for criticism from other councilors. “Everything I do is an issue.”
Adrien, 31, is at least three decades younger than some of her colleagues, and has often ruffled feathers by challenging traditions and asking pointed questions. “She’s been disrespectful to me since Day One,” Council President Rosa DiFlorio told the Globe in June. “She has no respect for seniors or white people.”
Video of the councilors' comments at last week’s meeting has disappeared. The morning after, the city discovered the video of the session had been erased from its broadcasting system, said Deanna Deveney, director of communications for the city of Everett.
Mayor Carlo DeMaria said he instructed his staff to immediately notify city and state police, as well as the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, which confirmed it has launched a criminal inquiry into the video’s disappearance.
“I am totally outraged that someone, somehow gained access to the City of Everett’s server,” DeMaria said in a statement.
The city of Everett has been one of the hot spots of coronavirus cases throughout the pandemic and is currently designated a high-risk community. Its average daily rate of infection per 100,000 residents was 24.4 over the last two weeks — higher than Boston and all but 10 other Massachusetts communities, according to Massachusetts Department of Public Health data. Black Americans face two to three times the risk of coronavirus infection as white Americans and are more than twice as likely as white Americans to die from COVID-19, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
Adrien said she’s leery about sitting in the council chamber, where most members don’t wear masks, for meetings that can last up to four hours. She and her husband live with her father, who is especially vulnerable because he has diabetes. She has a doctor’s note saying it is ill-advised for her to attend.
Everett city councilors, like most municipal boards, met online for months after Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order allowing public meetings to be conducted remotely during the pandemic. Technology was always problematic, though, and Zoom meetings brought the potential for gaffes to be streamed directly from politicians' homes into those of voters.
At a July council meeting, one councilor seemed to be applying lotion to his arms, getting ready for bed, and turning out the light. Another councilor expressed his eagerness to resume meetings in City Hall, but DiFlorio said she couldn’t push members beyond their comfort level.
“Unfortunately, until this COVID is over, if people decide that they want to stay on Zoom, we are unable to tell them that they have to come off,” DiFlorio said at the July meeting, according to a video posted on the city’s website.
But the council resumed meeting in City Hall in September, and last week, DiFlorio was among those voicing dissatisfaction with Adrien’s level of participation.
“We need to go back to the old-fashioned way,” the Everett Independent quoted DiFlorio as saying. “If the Internet goes off, then come on. We have a job to do. To the extent an individual does not want to be here, that’s their decision.”
Councilor Peter A. Napolitano went further, directly challenging Adrien to resign and contrasting her commitment with that of her peers.
“There are four or five members in the chamber over 60,” Napolitano said, according to the Independent. “We’re here because we took an oath to the residents of Everett. If you can’t do it, you have some decisions to make.”
Neither DiFlorio nor Napolitano returned phone calls from the Globe. DeMaria said in a statement that emotions and anxieties are running high during this unprecedented time, but, he said, “I’m hopeful that all members of the Council can put aside whatever differences they may be facing as we continue collaborating for the better of our City.”
In June, amid a national reckoning on race relations, Adrien proposed a committee council on race relations; other council members turned on her, with some denying the existence of racism in their city.
The communications gap widened at last Monday’s meeting due to an audio glitch that prevented Adrien from being heard in the chamber during the first part of the meeting. A city employee listening to her on his laptop had to relay her votes and questions to the councilors, who blamed her for the snag. On Friday, the city acknowledged the problem was its own.
“The amplifier broke that evening,” Deveney said on Friday. “We could not hear her through the speaker system. It is being fixed.”
Viewers watching on Everett Cable TV could hear Adrien’s input from Zoom, although her colleagues in the city council chamber could not.
Adrien further irritated some of the other councilors by saying she had not seen a document because it had not been e-mailed to her as requested; DiFlorio asserted that councilors' packets are dropped off at their houses and that scanning documents would cost money. Adrien offered to teach city staff how to scan documents. DiFlorio, who could see Adrien online, but still could not hear her, deemed her “out of control,” according to the Independent.
Watching from home, Everett resident Joan Beckta was outraged. Though she said Adrien often rolls her eyes at her colleagues, which gets under their skin, Beckta viewed DiFlorio as the one being disrespectful and dismissive of her health concerns. A 68-year-old paralegal, Beckta said she texted DiFlorio during the meeting, she said, calling it “ridiculous” that councilors couldn’t effectively use technology.
“Technology exists to make it possible for her to attend the meetings remotely,” Beckta said. “It’s not her fault if they do not keep their technology up to date. There is no good reason why she can’t attend the meetings remotely.”
Adrien doesn’t think the dispute is about technology at all.
“I think they’re just sick and tired of me being on the council,” she said. “And they just want me out.”