Select Board discusses social justice/diversity issues

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The Hopkinton Select Board delved into a lively discussion about social justice and diversity during its Tuesday night meeting, addressing what the board has the power to do and how it can use its power to examine and improve the town.

At the July 2 meeting, resident Ilana Casady asked the board to consider four calls to action: first, to make a formal statement in support of Black Lives Matter; second, to institute anti-racist hiring practices, implement diversity and sensitivity training in all departments, and set hiring goals to increase diverse representation; third, to review the allocation of funds to public service employees including but not limited to police officers, mental health specialists and social workers in order to reallocate funds to decrease police responsibility and increase alternative social services in town; and fourth, to have the Hopkinton police chief give a formal statement on how he is making changes within the department to address intrinsic racial bias.

Select Board chair Brendan Tedstone first clarified that, “The town charter specifically states that the Select Board may not be involved in the day-to-day administration of any town department. The board is responsible for policy matters and has a defined process for bringing matters onto future agendas. We do understand the need to address the issues raised, as it is equally important that we do so in a compliant and meaningful way.”

Vice chair Irfan Nasrullah said that despite positive appearances, the town might benefit from a closer look at how things are run.

“When it comes to our town, in Hopkinton, I generally approach things if it’s not broken don’t fix it,” he said. “And I don’t see a problem here in Hopkinton with systemic racism. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So in my opinion I think it is always worthwhile to step back and take a look at how are we are doing things.

“As far as the call to action, do we welcome all races? Of course we welcome all races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, gender identifications, sexual orientations. I think that’s a given, and I’m happy to make that as a formal statement. So yes, I think that it’s worthwhile. At the same time, I don’t think we can attach our name to any particular movement. I think we can identify with ideals and support ideals.”

Select Board member Brian Herr agreed that a closer look is warranted but cautioned about the approach.

“We need to do everything we can locally without wading into the national … mess in D.C. around this whole situation,” he said. “I believe in the concept, and I believe that Black lives matter as a person. But as a governing body in Hopkinton, in consultation with the town counsel, we can’t endorse a political movement. We can’t endorse a political party. We can’t formally endorse any organization like that. Just like we can’t endorse the Republican Party, Democratic Party or the Green Party. We just can’t go there. But I do think we can have specific action items and specific concepts voted on by this board and articulated so the community understands where the board comes from through these actions and through these initiatives, beyond the ideals. I don’t think it’s going to be easy for us to come up with that.”

There have been calls nationally to “defund” the police, with different opinions on exactly what that means. There was no support from the board to take money away from the HPD.

“I personally don’t agree with defunding, but where we can allocate resources to address these issues, that makes a lot of sense,” Nasrullah said.

Added Herr: “I would add money to the department … to perhaps get a mental health resource officer on staff, or some other form of mental health and social worker, if you will, type of degreed person to help the individuals on the force and help the people in the community understand what’s going on. But the concept of defunding, I would not go there at all.”

Tedstone noted that of the three most recent police hires, two are female, and he emphasized that they were selected because they were “the most qualified individuals.”

Said Tedstone: “To imply that we’re not sensitive to the social issues is a little bit off-putting.”

Added Tedstone: “I am a firm believer that, yeah, there’s always things we can do to better our community. And there are outliers where there are isolated cases — and maybe more than isolated, maybe a couple of cases of racism or bullying or whatever you have out there. They may exist. You can’t eradicate those. You can try your hardest, but I don’t think they’re going to be eradicated. But for anybody to think that Hopkinton will accept, condone, brush under the carpet, not treat people equally is absolutely asinine in my eyes.

“So I am on board with getting some data and information from the police chief and I’m on board to look into the issues with racism and things like that and to overall just to better our community. That’s all I want to do, is have a great community.”

Herr said its a big-picture issue with small-town consequences.

“I think that systemic racism is bigger than most of us can get our heads around right now, if you go back 200 years and 300 years and the development of America,” he said. “And I think that’s what a lot of this discussion nationally is about. Little old Hopkinton has a great community. It’s great, we’re safe, we’ve got great safety officers. But we’re not immune to some of that. I don’t know where that sits. But we should try and study that a little bit and understand that and report on that and then come up with some specifics and perhaps action items coming out of that.

“I agree with you, I think Hopkinton is a great place to live, raise a family and work. We’ve all talked about that for a long time. But I don’t think we can be completely blind to the fact that there might be systemic racism somewhere in our community we don’t even know and see. And that’s what I think this is about, is doing sort of a dismantling of certain institutions and them putting them back together in a better way. And I’m open to those ideas. That’s what I think is going to take some time to figure out over the next few weeks, as to what we really want to focus on.”

Herr made a point to criticize the discussions online that sometimes include anonymous insinuations and accusations. This has been an issue the past couple of local elections, notably last month’s Select Board race.

“I also think it’s important that as a community we have this discussion in public meetings, in public discussion, and not worry about what is going to be said on Facebook,” Herr said. “Because these issues are going to be hotly contested and discussed, and there’s a lot of passion around them, for good reason. Facebook, in my view, is just horrific for these kinds of discussions. I’ve seen where it’s actually driven people out of our community that we would want to stay in our community to help us learn and understand what it’s like to live in other people’s shoes. So I’m really concerned about that piece of this puzzle, and I’m going to call people out when I see it happen. But I’m all for trying to figure this out, and I’m all for taking actions, concrete actions, and voting those actions and voting those ideals … but I don’t think we can craft what they are tonight. There’s just too much, too quickly.”

Tedstone noted Hopkinton’s recognition for safety by a national website and said it’s further proof that the town is doing things the right way.

“We’re doing a damn good job,” he said. “We’re doing a great job. Two years ago we were the safest city in the country. Last year we were the safest city in Massachusetts. We’re doing a damn good job. A great job.”

Board member Mary Jo LaFreniere suggested the town could be recognized as a leader in the social justice issue as well.

“The state’s looking at us as a model community for COVID,” she said. “We could be a model community for lots of things that are good.”

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