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Gerald Alston finally wins his case

Former firefighter Gerald Alston addressed supporters at a rally last May.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Gerald Alston’s long battle against the leadership of the Town of Brookline was supposed to have ended in April, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that he had been fired illegally, supporting his claim of racial discrimination.

Alston was said to have prevailed again last month, when he reached an $11 million settlement with the town’s Select Board.

But all predictions of closure have proved premature in this maddening case of harassment, and no victory has come without drama.

Tuesday night was no exception, but after three hours of debate Brookline Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved the deal that ends the long-running case by a vote of 186-38, with 11 abstentions.

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Gerald Alston’s lawsuit had long been an open wound in Brookline, a public rebuke of the town’s progressive self-image and supposed reverence for inclusion.

Alston’s issues with the fire department date back 11 years. That’s when a supervisor, Lieutenant Paul Pender, left Alston a voice mail calling him a racial slur.

Pender got a slap on the wrist. Alston was eventually fired for supposed retaliation; he was reinstated, but refused to return to what was clearly a hostile, racist situation. That was a rational move, given the way town officials rallied to protect Pender.

Sentiment in Brookline began to turn a couple of years ago. The Select Board issued a public apology. But a hard-line faction that has steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for ending Alston’s career has successfully blocked any financial settlement.

To say the Alston case has roiled the town would be an understatement. It has divided progressives and moderates, and opened a fissure between old-time residents and more recent arrivals.

Over the weekend, Facebook pages were lit up, and e-mails — pro and con — were flying. Various factions have supported approving the settlement, or trying to reduce the settlement, or walking away from it completely and rolling the dice in court. Those who have maintained that Alston’s case is weak continued to press their case.

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Meanwhile, Alston has suffered. He hasn’t been talking since he reached a settlement, because he didn’t want to say anything that might lessen the chances that it would go through.

But when we talked after his big win at the SJC — the one that gave him a huge glimmer of hope — he was clear about the huge toll this case has taken on his life. He’s lost more than income — he’s lost a career he loved. He told me he was thinking about what it would take to start over — at age 54.

The latest settlement was negotiated in the wake of the SJC decision in April and approved by the Select Board on a 3-0 vote. (One member abstained; another, who is a named defendant in Alston’s suit, didn’t vote because of a conflict of interest.)

As Town Meeting approached Tuesday, multiple amendments were being proposed to reduce the settlement — to, perhaps, $6 million.

Select Board member Raul Fernandez — who was directly involved in the negotiations and deserves huge credit for helping to push it over the goal line — told me the $11 million figure represented the lowest amount Alston would settle for. Fernandez said he believed it was critical for the town that the agreed-upon settlement be approved. He insisted that the people of Brookline support settling this case.

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“We have an opportunity to put an 11-year saga to rest,” Fernandez said.

“If we don’t vote favorably on this, the reputational damage to Brookline will be very dire. The prospect of going into litigation without the community behind us, without the Select Board behind us, and without the majority of Town Meeting behind us would be dire,’’ Fernandez said a few hours before the vote,

True, $11 million is a big settlement. But the number got so big because Brookline officials spent years steadfastly defending outrageous and racist behavior, and squandered every chance to do the right thing. Alston didn’t choose to spend 11 years of his life this way.

So does Brookline want justice or not? That — and not a specific dollar figure — is the real question the town grappled with Tuesday night.

And for the first time in this long, strange case, something approaching justice was finally done.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.