Labor counsel Jaime Kenny has a word of caution for municipal officials tempted to turn the tables on overzealous antagonists who seek to dominate public hearings or other gatherings.
“Don’t take the bait,” said Kenny, a partner in the Pembroke-based law firm Clifford & Kenny, who has experienced her share of volatile scenarios in contract negotiations and other labor disputes.
The labor attorney was one of three presenters last week at a town hall workshop organized to help local boards and committees navigate highly charged situations that have become increasingly common for both elected and appointed boards and committees.
While the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the U.S Capitol building remain unique in both scale and scope, few would deny the volume and intensity of public discourse has ratcheted up significantly in recent years — normalizing confrontational, even combative, interactions with public officials in the name of free speech.
Over the past year, Foxboro has seen an number of disruptive episodes — including parents demanding that school board members rescind a mask mandate in local classrooms and neighbors heckling planning board members during hearings on a proposed Route 1 trucking warehouse.
According to Kenny, such belligerent encounters can often be averted by carefully game-planning potentially sensitive meetings with an eye towards curbing more extreme voices without stifling legitimate opposition.
Successful strategies might include setting clear expectations for respectful behavior, explaining the board’s responsibilities and limitations under the law and outlining a procedural framework for how business will be conducted.
“The more structure we have in place the more comfortable people are going to feel,” she said, adding that community leaders have a responsibility to establish and model a common culture where people can disagree without heckling or engaging in intimidation or personal attacks.
In addition to making careful preparations, town officials also need to have backup plans in the event decorum cannot be restored.
Police Chief Michael Grace, who selectively assigns patrol officers to municipal meetings if passions are expected to run high, suggested calling a brief recess to let tempers cool or, if need be, continuing the session to a future date.
“Time is in our favor,” said Grace, who was accompanied by a number of shift commanders experienced in de-escalating hostile situations. “The meeting can always take a break.”
Joining Grace and Kenny on last week’s panel, Caitlin Morey, an associate with Kenny’s firm, recommended placing time limits on public comment to temper more extreme voices and avoid redundancy.
All three presenters stressed that committee chairpersons retain the authority to condition participation in all public meetings. In more extreme cases, Morey said, officials may be justified in accepting written comments only, or even restricting unruly individuals from attending hearings in person in favor of Zoom participation.
In any event, Kenny added, participants should be fully informed about their legal rights to appeal an unpopular ruling.
“Due process is notice and opportunity to be heard,” she said. “That’s everyone’s right as a citizen.”
Selectmen Chairwoman Leah Gibson, who was among several dozen local officials attending the Jan. 11 workshop, said she hoped that it could be repeated for a wider audience at a future date.