Controversy surrounds Select Board race following accusation of online ‘attacks’

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The fallout from Monday night’s Select Board candidates debate continued Tuesday, as John Coutinho questioned why Amy Ritterbusch hasn’t done more to stop what he called “vicious attacks” online, and Ritterbusch denied being aware of any such attacks while questioning Coutinho’s decision to pass on his chance to focus on the issues in the HCAM forum. And, with Hopkinton one of the few towns in the state that has a partisan election, Donald Trump is playing a key role.

Monday’s debate started innocently enough, with moderator Tom Nappi asking the candidates about their top priorities. After Ritterbusch gave her answer, Coutinho announced that he would not participate.

“Unfortunately, the online activities of some in our community have created a hostile environment for thoughtful and constructive political discourse, as well as vicious attacks not only on my candidacy but members of my family, including my innocent children,” said Coutinho, who has two college-aged daughters.

He added: “Given the hostilities focused on partisan politics and the lack of legitimate debate in this campaign around the real issues facing Hopkinton for a volunteer position, I can no longer in good conscience participate in any discussion with those that allow this to happen.”

In a followup text conversation after the debate, Coutinho made it clear that he was calling out Ritterbusch for failing to put a stop to the “attacks,” which he said were posted on Facebook groups and Instagram and later deleted. He added that after his announcement they were back “at a frenzy” late Monday night.

“Do not apologize after the fact,” he stated. “Step up and say ‘Knock this off’ while it’s going on. … Where’s Amy?”

Ritterbusch, speaking Tuesday morning in a phone interview, denied being aware of any personal attacks. She acknowledged spending time on popular Facebook groups in town but said she has only seen comments about Coutinho’s political stances — most notably his past support for Trump — and said she believed it was “fair game” to question people’s opinions on issues such as the president.

Coutinho, chair of the Hopkinton Republican Town Committee who has described himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative, said national politics should have no role in town races.

“We should only be thinking [about] this new financial crisis and how to protect our schools, how to protect our number one public safety [ranking] and protect our taxpayers,” he texted.

Ritterbusch, a Democrat, said Coutinho had his chance Monday night to keep the focus on town issues but chose to pass. She followed up by releasing a statement on the matter.

“At last night’s scheduled Select Board debate on HCAM, instead of responding to the first question, my opponent read a prepared statement and left the debate,” Ritterbusch wrote. “He accused me of allowing attacks on social media through surrogates on him and his family. Without question I do not condone personal attacks on my opponent or his family members. I am not aware of any personal attacks, which makes it hard for me to respond.

“I have run a positive campaign these last few months, sharing information with voters such as how to find remote meeting agendas on the town website, sharing every Select Board and Planning Board agenda packet and answering questions from members of the public. I have released all of my campaign finance filings and a statement on racial injustice. I am trying to be as transparent as possible.

“This is my third time running for public office in a hotly contested race and I have taken the brunt of a lot of negative campaigning over the years. It is hard being in the public eye, but I accept that my opinions on local issues, and sometimes also state and national issues, are important to the residents. I understand that people may disagree with me at times and may criticize some of my opinions, but I listen to them respectively and try to understand their perspectives. I have developed a thick skin and learned not to take it personally when someone disagrees with me on an issue.

“When running for office I have always showed up and participated in the debates. I was very disappointed that I did not get a chance to debate the issues with my opponent last night. As a voter myself I watch the HCAM debates every year and have found them to be fair and very much appreciate the tireless work HCAM does for our community.”

The Independent reached out to the administrators for some popular Facebook groups in town, and those supervising the Hopkinton Community Group and Real Housewives of Hopkinton sites denied having seen any personal attacks directed toward Coutinho or his family. They were adamant that they do not allow personal attacks on their sites.

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