What should have been a routine meeting last spring to choose the next chairman of the Sudbury Board of Selectmen devolved into a heated debate of personal attacks that left many residents shaking their heads in disgust.
Ten days after that May 2014 meeting, the hostile political climate in town continued its downward spiral when Selectman Len Simon, one of three members to vote in Charles Woodard as chairman, found three toilets in his front yard. Simon is convinced the prank — one toilet for each vote — was done in retaliation for his role in the dispute.
“I was appalled,” Simon said. “I thought it was just an awful thing to do. It went beyond an uncivil comment.”
Simon isn’t the only one upset about the acrimony that has divided this upscale town west of Boston. Over the past few years, there have been accusations of open meeting law violations, suppression of free speech, using private e-mail accounts for political gain, and name-calling.
Recently, a group of local clergy members stepped in, enlisting the help of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School to propose ways to move toward more civil discourse. The results of the “Sudbury Listening Project” will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Grange Hall in Sudbury.
“My hope is for a more positive and constructive public dialogue in town,” said the Rev. Richard Erikson of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Sudbury, a member of the interfaith Sudbury Clergy Association.
“I think our clergy association models how people with significant differences can gather with great respect and even admiration for each other,” he said. “There is no animosity or rancor. I’d love to see Sudbury get to that place where in no way are our differences muted, but they are discussed in a positive and constructive way.”
Harvard law students Seanan Fong and Jiayun Ho spent two months interviewing members of the community, holding focus groups, and conducting an online survey that was completed by 191 people.
“The whole purpose was to listen, not to come in and say, ‘This is what’s wrong with your town,’ but to understand what people are seeing and hearing and feeling,” said Rachel Viscomi, assistant director of the program, which connects students from the law school with organizations that would benefit from strategic negotiation and conflict management advice.
The program takes on about a dozen projects a year, and this is the first time students have tackled an issue facing an entire town. But Viscomi said Sudbury isn’t alone in this day of technology and social media.
“While these kinds of challenges are ones that many communities and organizations deal with, what made Sudbury unique is that many residents had the courage and willingness to dig in and find out if there is a better path forward,” Viscomi said.
That path did not come, however, without exploring pain first.
The report found that “recent tensions have had a damaging impact on relationships and participation in the community,” and that many of those involved have “experienced deep frustration, hurt, and agony.”
Residents said tensions started rising in town after a student was fatally stabbed by a fellow student at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in 2007, according to the report. But many said the biggest trigger took place about three years ago when a group of town officials, including the then-chairman of the Board of Selectmen, met at a local restaurant after Town Meeting and stayed past the allowed closing time — a violation of its liquor license. One of the town employees was involved in a one-car accident after leaving the restaurant and was charged with drunken driving.
The incident turned into a townwide drama that led to calls for a vote of no confidence in a selectman and the creation of a Facebook group called One Sudbury, which has become a place for residents to vent their frustration. Members of One Sudbury successfully pushed a change in the makeup of the Board of Selectmen from three members to five, with the hope that it would lead to a more representative government.
But angry exchanges between board members and on social media sites have continued.
“There’s been a lot of brinksmanship, a lot of power-mongering, a lot of personal attacks, and not a lot of open or honest communication,” resident Mara Huston said. “People can have a difference of opinion, but if people are not willing to listen, then we get nowhere and that’s what has happened over the past few years.”
To improve communication, the report suggests measures such as holding a retreat for selectmen to get to know one another better, improving the town’s website, hiring a public outreach coordinator, and holding more issue-specific forums.
Viscomi said most residents contacted for the project were “warm and gracious,” though there were some who thought the issues were blown out of proportion and didn’t warrant outside intervention. Many townspeople probably were not affected, the report noted, because they aren’t involved in town government or are more focused on work, their families, and outside activities.
Selectman Robert Haarde said he’s hopeful that officials and residents will take the report seriously.
“We need to start approaching different opinions with curiosity and resist the temptation to assign bad intentions to those with whom you disagree,” he said. “You have to recognize there are two sides and two sets of values and two sets of perspectives.”
Simon, who acknowledges having made some now-regretted comments about a colleague, hopes the report will start a positive dialogue. But he worries the incivility will persist on social media platforms, where people don’t interact face-to-face.
“It’s certainly a worthwhile project,” he said. “It will speak loudly to those people who were civil to begin with, but for those who were uncivil, I’m afraid it will fall on deaf ears.”
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.