A Newton city councilor said she was the recipient of “unwanted and unwelcome” messages from a fellow councilor during a meeting last month and is calling for the city to create an ethics commission to oversee the conduct of local elected officials.
City Councilor Brenda Noel said her proposal was motivated by the text messages sent by Rick Lipof, the council’s vice president, during a Nov. 20 meeting. Lipof has since apologized for his behavior in a letter sent to council colleagues that he shared with the Globe.
“I owe you a drink. A dinner. A foot massage. I need to figure this out,” Lipof texted Noel during the exchange last month, which was filed with other City Council documents on Newton’s official website. “OK the foot massage sounds creepy, but it’s always [what] my wife wants.
“Can I blame this whole discussion on COVID fog please?” Lipof wrote to Noel.
Noel blocked her colleague on her phone, she said in an interview, and described the message as “suggestively sexual.”
“I was absolutely stunned,” she said.
In his letter, Lipof, a councilor-at-large who was first elected to the council in 1996, said he supported Noel’s proposal for a city ethics commission. He ran unopposed for reelection in November to a new two-year term.
“I feel terrible that my texts made my colleague feel uncomfortable and for that I have apologized,” he wrote. “While we are all human and often develop comfortable relationships with our colleagues in how we communicate about life and work, I now understand completely how this exchange made my colleague feel. Again I apologize.”
The proposed ethics commission, which is expected to be discussed Wednesday during a meeting of the council’s Programs & Services Committee, would create and enforce a City Council code of ethics, according to city clerk’s office filings.
“I don’t want to see it happen to anybody,” Noel said. “Regardless of gender or status, no one should receive a message like this in a working environment.”
City Council President Susan Albright said she supported the idea of having a code of conduct and has previously proposed a policy for the board. She said Lipof’s message about a massage “was stupid and inappropriate.”
Albright said she still has full faith in him as a councilor.
“I’ve worked with him as my vice president for four years. And people have styles, and he doesn’t mean anything bad by his style,” Albright said.
Newton has formal policies barring harassment by employees. But the city does not have the authority to regulate the conduct of elected officials and is not in a position to investigate matters between city councilors, the city’s solicitor, Alissa Giuliani, said in a statement.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, asked for comment about the controversy, said, “I want everyone to be treated respectfully when engaged in the work of the City of Newton.”
Noel, who was elected to the City Council in 2017, represents a ward that includes the villages of Newton Centre and Newton Highlands. In a letter to her colleagues, Noel called the messages from Lipof “inappropriate, unwanted, and unwelcome.”
During the exchange, which took place over a roughly 15-minute period, Lipof mentions a controversial proposal to rezone several parts of Newton to allow for greater multifamily housing.
Lipof advised Noel to “leave it high and classy” during the meeting.
When Noel replied she didn’t understand the message, Lipof wrote, “Don’t let anybody push your buttons tonight.”
Noel said she took this as a male colleague telling her how to do her job.
“His first inclination is to talk to me about how I should behave that night during the meeting... sort of policing how I’m going to behave on the council,” Noel said in the interview. “Which is wildly inappropriate, and not good leadership.”
When the text exchange continued during the meeting, Lipof said Noel was “my assignment tonight” and apologized that she was taking his messages negatively.
After Noel objected, that’s when Lipof made the comments about dinner and a foot massage. He appeared to regret sending the message almost immediately, blaming COVID.
Noel said she has told Lipof more than once she doesn’t need his feedback on her work as a councilor. But that night was the first time she’d received a message that was “so inappropriate,” she said.
It was unclear whether Newton’s proposed ethics commission would be the first of its kind. Representatives for both the Massachusetts secretary of state’s office and the Massachusetts Municipal Association said they were unaware of any similar commissions in place in local cities or towns.
Adam Chapdelaine, the executive director of the statewide municipal association, said generally, elected officials don’t fall under the purview of a municipal human resources department.
Over the past decade, there has been a lot of discussion among municipal elected leaders to create codes of conduct amid rising calls for civility in public meetings, he said.
“I would say that any community is probably better off considering adopting a code of conduct, as opposed to not,” Chapdelaine said. “It’s better to have rules of the road, than driving or flying blind.”
Mary Connaughton, the director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, said the text messages received by Noel “cross every line of professionalism.”
But creating a municipal ethics bureaucracy may not be the best solution, according to Connaughton, because it is “hard, resource-intensive, and perhaps a bit of overkill.”
“The most direct and efficient way to deal with this is to do just what Councilor Noel did – make sure the media and the public know all the facts, so that voters can make informed decisions in the voting booth,” Connaughton said in an email.
Noel, who did not seek reelection in November, does not expect the proposed ethics commission to be put into place before her term wraps up at the end of the month. But she is optimistic that councilors will continue working on it, despite political divisions.
“If you consider our City Council divided, this is something that hopefully transcends both sides,” she said. “I think there is some support on this issue.”
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.