LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The Police Association is demanding an apology from Selectmen Robert Ericson for comment he made during last week's board meeting.
Ericson was advocating that a question related to the police station be put to a secret ballot instead of the traditional card raising at town meeting when he said residents are afraid to vote against the police officers or else they won't show up.
"Some of [the residents] are afraid, afraid, to vote against the Police Department or the Fire Department. You know what they said, 'I'm afraid they won't come if we need them,'" Ericson said.
The Lanesborough Police Association, Massachusetts Coalition of Police Local 390 responded to that comment calling it "blasphemous, intolerant, uneducated, and misguided."
"Let us be steadfast that this type of dialogue, from anyone, is a gross miscarriage of justice with grave consequences. This type of blasphemous, intolerant, uneducated, and misguided dialogue from a select board member is unforgivable," reads a letter to Ericson written by the Union on Tuesday.
"It would be our sincerest hope that you would have told any resident of the Town of Lanesborough that the men and women of the Lanesborough Police and Fire Departments are professional and dedicate their lives to protecting and serving the residents. That if there is a legitimate concern you would look into it and advise them. However, you had to have known that making this statement would incite public anger, tarnish the reputation of the police department, break the sacred public trust between the police and fire departments and the citizens we serve and protect."
Ericson's quote came during discussion regarding a request for qualifications to do a needs assessment and feasibility study for the aging police station. The idea, prior to having the assessment be shot down by the Board of Selectmen, was to put various options for a police station on a town meeting warrant and have the voters decide.
However, all members of the Board of Selectmen, voiced concern that residents won't vote against certain items because of peer pressure. At town meeting, votes are taken by raising cards into the air for and against where all attendees can see who voted which way.
"That is a shame that we have people that feel that way. We should be ashamed that they feel afraid in their own community, that their Police and their Fire Department won't come. That's not right," Ericson said at the meeting.
Ericson and Selectman Henry "Hank" Sayers both asked about ways to make the question be a secret ballot instead. The Selectmen said they've heard the same concerns about the open voting process during debates regarding the schools.
Town Manager Kelli Robbins said there are people like that in every town.
"I have not worked in a town where there weren't people who felt that way. It's sad and it's not OK. But it is not uncommon either. It is not a Lanesborough-specific issue," Robbins said.
The police union, however, felt that isn't how a member of the board should respond and felt it was a knock on the department.
"As a select board member, if somebody said that to you, we would have thought that you would have told them that they have nothing to worry about, they're going to come no matter what your vote is. We would have thought you would have backed us up on that," union President Ben Garner said.
Police Chief Timothy Sorrell and Fire Chief Charles Durfee also responded shortly after seeing the recording of the meeting to dissuade any belief that officers or firefighters would behave like that.
"If this statement is in fact factual the Lanesborough Police Department and the Lanesborough Volunteer Fire Department are embarrassed and ashamed that members of our community, our neighbors and possibly friends would think that these two departments would shirk our sworn duties over something as miniscule as a difference in opinions," the two chiefs wrote in a joint statement.
"Both of these town departments are sworn to protect and serve our community and we do so unwavering and unselfishly regardless of how one votes at a town meeting."
Ericson responded that his intent was not to badmouth the town's first responders but to make the other board members aware that there is a "public relations problem" in town.
"I felt this was a public relations situation that we need to address as a town. There is no doubt in my mind that they'll respond, they are all professionals," he said on Tuesday.
Ericson said it bothered him to hear that residents felt that way and that he believes both the Police and Fire departments will respond every time. He has been collecting signatures for another term on the board and said residents had voiced that concern about the town meeting voting process. Ericson said he just wanted the other board members and Robbins know the sentiment was there.
"I wanted to get it out there, in front of people, so it could be addressed," he said. "We need to talk about the fact that people are concerned when they shouldn't be."
Ericson believes that a secret ballot would help alleviate those fears. That decision, however, resides with the moderator. With the annual town meeting coming up, he hoped to bring the issue to the forefront before the meeting and said the only chance he had to do so was during the open meeting.
"For anything that is a real contentious issue, a secret ballot is the way to go," Ericson said.
The union, however, took that statement a different way. The union felt that airing those sentiments during a televised meeting was another attack on the police since the debate over the station's future began.
Ericson has spent the last several years on a renovation project trying to insulate and improve the building. The union has filed multiple written complaints about the condition of the station and have been urging the Board of Selectmen to follow a process to build a new station.
Sayers and Ericson voted against issuing the RPQ for a feasibility study and instead are looking to hire a contractor to complete the renovation instead.
"We brought options and potential solutions always trying to bridge the need for a new workspace and potential cost to the taxpayers. We have been threatened ever since. There has been threats made by Selectman Sayers and you to lay off the night shift. Once we received and distributed the MIAA report which validated our position all along, Selectman Sayers wanted to lay off the entire police department and let the Massachusetts State Police patrol the town," the union wrote in the letter to Ericson.
"You have echoed this threat by making a similar statement that crime was down and having too many officers. A logical conclusion when hearing crime may be down would be to celebrate and recognize the hard work by the patrolmen and chief, not use it to lodge another threat to the local. However, it is very clear that the only intention of Selectman Sayers and yourself is to threaten, intimidate and coerce the members of our local for the single fact that we opposed your attempt to single handily complete a project that was beyond your means."
Ericson has taken issue with a number of the complaints raised by the union and the town's insurance company over the condition of the building, believing the concerns can be addressed through his renovation plan at a significant savings to the town.
The union believes Ericson has bitten off more than he can chew and his work has only unveiled more troubles with the building. Members are calling on Ericson to back away from the project, feeling he is too personally invested in completing it and that his focus on finishing the job is tainting his ability to make impartial decisions.
"Your comments documented above coupled with the fact that you appear to have added a vote to remove decision making authority by the townspeople, continue to show a pattern that you are personally vested in this project," the union wrote. "Your actions and public comments serve to prove that you are not able to be fair or act in an impartial manner when evaluating what is truly best for the citizens and members of this local as it pertains to this project, yet you have yet to do the proper thing and abstain from a single vote."
Sayers responded to the allegations of his comments being retaliatory to lay off the department saying his concern was for the officers' safety. He said he wasn't retaliating because of the union's push but rather that after reading the MIIA report he felt the town would be acting negligently if it allowed officers to continue to occupy the building.
"I did not want to put them back into an unsafe work space," he said on Tuesday.
Sayers said he had presented a number of temporarily solutions at the time but felt the officers were quick to reject those options. Garner, however, said some proposals, such using the basement of Town Hall, would not be easy to do. The union agreed to stay in the current station to save the town money, he said.
"We were willing to stay there as long as we knew something was happening," Garner said.