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Local government boards feel the sting of incivility

In seaside Salisbury, town officials have feuded through a summer of discontent, spicing normally subdued municipal meetings with shouting matches and heated exchanges. Even a June meeting meant to clear the air devolved into screaming and table-pounding.

In Hanson, a health board meeting last fall collapsed into chaos when a furious resident flipped over a table in protest, causing a near melee.

And in Medford, where political rivalries date back decades, civic strife runs so deep it has become something of a point of pride.

“Absolutely no one gets to say they didn’t get to speak their minds,” said Robert Penta, a longtime city councilor, casting the hostility in a favorable light. “If you’ve got something to say, then say it.”


While partisan vitriol is becoming a native language in Washington, D.C., the tenor of local politics in Massachusetts has taken on an increasingly combative tone, observers say. Constituents and town officials alike are voicing their displeasure in more aggressive, personal terms, as if taking their cue from the Beltway bickering. All politics, and its squabbling, is local, after all.

“It’s like people are thinking ‘If our federal and state officials can talk to each other this way, why can’t we do it on the local level?’ ” said Donald Beaulieu, a selectman in Salisbury, where emotions over a proposal for a casino have run high. “We are, quote unquote, ‘politicians,’ just like those people in Washington.”

The rising rancor has sparked a number of public spectacles. In Dracut, a rift between selectmen and the school board prompted a frustrated selectman to call members “pig-headed” at a July meeting, which some residents left shaking their heads in disgust.

At a recent selectmen’s meeting in Scituate, a discussion about discolored tap water quickly turned ugly, with residents demanding it be fixed immediately and rejecting assurances the water was safe.


Selectman John Danehey said the meeting underlined a growing problem: a fundamental lack of trust in elected officials. That has the angriest residents spoiling for a fight on nearly any issue.

“People immediately don’t believe you,” he said. “There is an incredible lack of respect from people that come in and want to yell at you, tell you off. They don’t understand process and procedure.”

Brian Palmucci, a city councilor in Quincy, said the interaction among elected officials is hardly better. He recalled a meeting early in his first term when he heard one councilor dismiss another as a “[expletive] clown.”

“It struck me as being inappropriate and certainly not civil,” he said. “It’s not what folks elected us to do.”

Like many observers, Palmucci said he believes the larger political culture, from talk radio vitriol to the theatrics of political round tables, has trickled down to the local level to similarly corrosive effect.

“For ratings, it’s better to be glib and short and accusatory,” he said. “But in public discourse something is lost when that kind of culture permeates into community meetings.”

Others say our increasingly bitter brand of politics is a testament to the coarsening of society at large.

“This stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Cassandra Dahnke, cofounder of The Institute for Civility in Government in Houston. “What you see is actually a reflection of the population at large.”

While surveys have shown the country has become more polarized politically, Dahnke said, a reality-show culture, in which extreme views dominate the conversation, has crept into all corners of life.


“What gets attention gets edgier and edgier,” she said. “People think ‘I have to do something bigger and bolder if I am going to make my point.’ It pushes the boundaries.”

Whatever the cause, there seems to be consensus that incivility poses a significant problem and is only getting worse. A recent survey found that 95 percent of Americans believe the country has a civility problem, and 70 percent think incivility has reached crisis levels. More than 80 percent believe politics is becoming increasingly uncivil and that the trend is hurting the country’s future.

Beaulieu, the Salisbury selectman, said he sees two reinforcing trends as part of the problem. With technology, people have come to expect instant gratification and are frustrated by the pace of local issues. When voicing displeasure in person, some vent as if writing an anonymous online diatribe.

“The wheels of government grind very slow, and it seems to me that people get angry or upset when things don’t move fast enough,” he said.

Daniel Shea, a government professor at Colby College and author of “Can We Talk?: The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics,” said deep political partisanship has led to a “rejection of compromise” that has fueled incivility.

“People are ever-anxious to yell at each other because they can’t imagine finding common ground,” he said. “And when we can’t talk to one another, we can’t accomplish anything.”


But Penta, the Medford councilor, said the occasional outbursts don’t prevent councilors from talking to one another. It may even help.

“If we have an argument, we can put it behind us,” he said. “I don’t think the city could go forward if everyone held things back. It would be like Washington.”

Globe correspondents Brenda Buote, Jessica Bartlett, and Jarret Bencks contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.