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Board Of Selectmen Doubles Down On The Removal Of Thin Blue Line Flags

Kristen Arute, Hingham Current Staff, July 29, 2020

Hingham Current File Photo

More than 80 people called into the Board of Selectmen meeting in anticipation of discussion about the Thin Blue Flag controversy. Although the matter was not an item on the agenda, due to its timely nature it was taken up during the public comment period.

Selectman Joe Fisher, who is liaison to the Police Department, opened with a public statement on the matter that he had released earlier in the day. In it, he recalled his reaction to a citizen's request to place a hold on the budget at Town Meeting and defund the police department. "I stated in unequivocal language at Town Meeting that those concerns were not justified in Hingham," said Fisher, "because in our town, police officers perform to a high level of professionalism." He went on to say that no group has more respect for the men and women of the police department than the Board of Selectmen. "To highlight the importance of public safety," said Fisher, "the Board of Selectmen is currently on track to call for a Special Town Meeting this fall to request funds for the purchase of property to construct a state-of-the-art public safety complex." He noted that they plan to proceed with the public safety complex "despite financial constraints imposed by the current pandemic."

Fisher's letter, which was unanimously voted on by the Board for adoption as an official statement, referenced an email that the Selectmen received from a young man who asked that the Thin Blue Line flags be removed from the backs of fire trucks. That email has since been released and shared on social media. A number of residents have asked how the email became part of the public domain, even suggesting that there was a breach in security. "Given the social unrest in the United States and the nature of the letter sent," asked Cynthia Doe, "before deciding to disclose this letter publicly, was counsel consulted?"

 

Town Administrator Tom Mayo said no and offered to explain. "Upon receipt of request for a public record by a member of our fire department, I asked the fire chief to fulfill the request and provide the record," said Mayo. "The record was not redacted as redaction is not a requirement of the Public Records Law. Nor would that be consistent with our practice of the issuance of public records." Town Counsel added that the email was a communication to an elected body regarding something that's a matter of public policy and that those kind of documents are generally considered public record.

Before opening the meeting up for public comment, Chair Mary Power made some remarks. "Hingham has prided itself on civil discourse," said Power,"and one of the emotions that has been the strongest over the last few days is the sadness of the tone of this discussion." She went on to describe the thoughts the Board has had on the decision to have the flags removed which was described as a consistent implementation of the Town's practice concerning the public display of only official flags on town property. "As we talk about the possibility of establishing a written flag policy," said Power, "I think that many of the events over the last several weeks have said that for members of the community, this is something they want from us. I have seen a desire for explanation and specificity for a flag policy." The police and fire departments are ultimately accountable to the Board of Selectmen in matters of policy and discipline.

All but a handful of the residents who called in did so to express their support of the Board's decision to have the flags removed.

"Regardless of what it was initially intended to represent, the flag has been co-opted by white supremacists as a counter symbol to the Black Lives Matter movement," said Andrew Turner. "On those grounds alone, I don't think it has any place on town fire trucks." After expressing support for the Board of Selectmen and the Chiefs of the Police and Fire Departments, he went on to say, "There are other less offensive, less combative ways to honor the life and service of Sgt. Chesna."

Pam Hardy read a statement by the Hingham Unity Council which she said was formed to "encourage people to have meaningful, in-person discussions about our differences; to hear each other’s perspectives and experiences; to gain understanding; to promote empathy and support for all of our community members." She went on to say that the Hingham Unity Council "supports the current decision of our town officials to remove the Thin Blue Line flag from town property until there is a more complete understanding reached about the significance of its display and what it represents to all members of the Hingham community."

 

Katie Sutton, also a member of the Hingham Unity Council, echoed Hardy's sentiments. "I want to live in a community that welcomes everyone," she said, "and where everyone feels safe."

"I am shocked to hear of the vicious attacks that the Hingham family has received for their son daring to express his opinion of support of black lives," said Laurie Freeman. "I just want to thank the young man for his actions, and I want to apologize to him on behalf of us older adults that he is being treated in such an outrageous manner."

Although she didn't think it was a wise idea to engage, State Representative candidate Melissa B. Smith attended the America Backs the Blue rally at Town Hall in order to support "local townsfolk" whom she was concerned were going to be alone and to make sure the event was civil. "I believe that Hingham is very much with you in this decision," said Smith, "and I think that it represents a sort of distancing from the potential racism associated with this particular flag in the way that it is presented by white supremacists to frighten people."

Another resident who participated in the rally as a supporter of Black Lives expressed concerns over the infiltration of white supremacy into the police department. "We might not think we have a problem with that," said Lisa Shetty, "but we don't know, and I think that it is something we need to concern ourselves with." She went on to say that it is challenging for police departments across the country to get qualified police officers, which results in them having to "dip into pools that may be a little less savory." Chief Glenn Olsson assured Shetty that Hingham's officers "have no connection to a white racist movement of any type."

One member of the community shared memories of his father. "Being the son of a law enforcement officer that died on the job. I hope we still can honor our fallen police officers," said Ed Johnson. "I don't mean in a way to hurt anybody. I really feel for the family in Weymouth, and I still feel for my father that died, the hurt that my family had. There were no racial overtones with what happened to my father." Power thanked Johnson for his call and noted that she had already spoken with him earlier in the day. "I appreciate that we can have a mutually respectful decision," she said, "even though we didn't entirely agree on everything."

Dan Nardo had sent several pieces of correspondence to the Board sharing his concerns over various types of signs, like Black Lives Matter and the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ flag, that have been posted on Town-owned property. He has called for their removal "in the same expedient nature a memorandum was issued regarding the Thin Blue Line flags on Town-owned equipment." During the meeting he asked for clarification on the distinction between a "practice" and a "policy" since both terms had been used by town officials in describing the rationale behind the decision to remove the Thin Blue Line flags. Town Counsel explained that a policy is generally a document that's in writing and is typically adopted by an official that's authorized to adopt it, while a practice is simply a management tool.

A resident asked why the flags were still flying if they had been ordered to be taken down as a result of violating a town practice, and she said she noticed what appeared to be a "power struggle" between the Firefighters' Union and the town. "(It's as if) they're kind of making a decision independent of the community and that they can trump what the town and policy is," Corey Martin said of the firefighters' decision to keep the flag on the trucks. "It seemed to snowball based on an inability to follow through one way or another. We need to make this decision, make it happen and let there stop being a push and pull."

 

Power responded by saying that Mayo is trying to work with the firefighter union to follow through on removing the flag in a respectful manner. "We hear you," she said. "We hear what you're telling us."

Given that the flag is flown every year at this time in honor of Sgt. Chesna, Jessica Greenwood requested clarification on how long the flag has been displayed in the past. Chief Steve Murphy said that the flags were on the trucks for two months after Sgt. Chesna's death two years ago and had been put back up last year to commemorate the anniversary of his passing. "We have never had a defined time frame," he added.

Another member of the Hingham Unity Council, Jenny Weymouth asked if Mayo could provide a time frame. "I feel the decision was made to come off, and it needs to come off," she said. Mayo said that he would expect the flags to come off in the next few days.

Members of the Board of Selectmen are:

Mary Power, Chair

powerm@hingham-ma.gov

Joe Fisher

fisherj@hingham-ma.gov 

Bill Ramsey

ramseyw@hingham-ma.gov

Town Administrator Tom Mayo

mayot@hingham-ma.gov

Kristen Arute can be reached at kristen@hinghamcurrent.com.