"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
— President Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address
I believe that today, 84 years later, these words hold great relevance to our place and time. For some in Ashland are indeed afraid.
They fear the potential consequences of speaking truth to power and risking saying in public meetings what they truly think and feel. Fear can be profoundly destructive and paralyzing.
While serving on the City Council, I often witnessed citizens who, having mustered the courage to speak before the council, were shamed and ridiculed by the mayor and by some of my fellow councilors as well.
On one memorable evening during the public forum portion of the council meeting, two citizens gave comments. The first offered gentle but direct criticism of the council and mayor over the lack of transparency in their decision-making and their apparent reluctance to accept such criticism. After this woman spoke and was walking to her seat, the mayor called her out by name and announced that she was completely wrong.
The second person criticized staff for not doing their job relating to planning and community development. The mayor interrupted him mid-statement, telling him if he couldn’t speak positively, he must sit down. Flustered, he shortened his presentation and hurried to his seat.
In both cases, the mayor’s message was clear: “Don’t you dare criticize us. Criticism represents a lack of civility.”
Elected officials’ resistance to criticism and their sometimes defensive, angry responses to such criticism impinge on and erode every citizen’s right to free speech. We ought to be and are free to say what we wish to our elected officials; the Constitution — the law of the land — grants us that right. Yet this is exactly where fear can take root: when citizens witness what happens to those who speak truth to power and are then summarily made to sit down and shut up.
The implicit message is, “Be civil or don’t speak at all,” by which is meant, “Praise is welcome; criticism is not.” The mayor employs numerous justifications for curtailing free speech in public meetings: He decrees that “Citizens may not speak at all if another speaker has already expressed their opinion or idea,” that “Complaints about city staff are out of bounds,” and that speakers mustn’t mention anyone by name.
Whether intended or not, the subtext is that, if citizens run counter to the mayor or council, they should expect repercussions. Faced with this threat, many shrink from offering their views in public meetings. Those who do speak often feel they must carefully edit their comments and speak of public officials only in the most glowing terms.
If you doubt such bullying occurs, I encourage you to watch online videos of City Council meetings and the April budget meetings, during which duly appointed citizen members of the Budget Committee were prevented from expressing their views. The mayor stated that the council need not worry about the citizens’ views on the committee because they, the council, are the true deciders. In fact, citizens were bullied into acquiescence and submission, especially when they dared to raise red flags about the unsustainability of the proposed budget. Yet despite the bullying, these citizens issued their clarion warning: The city of Ashland is in grave fiscal trouble.
Faced with fiscal crisis, the council and mayor have essentially been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. PERS will take us down if something isn’t done to curtail its unsustainable growth. There is an answer to this looming crisis, but not if officials remain in denial. The council obstinately refuses to face the iceberg that lies dead ahead, declining to listen to the voices of well-informed, deeply concerned citizens.
Fears must be faced head-on or they will bring our ruin. Fear clouds clear thinking. Citizens of Ashland, we must rise to the challenge that, even if our leaders ridicule us in public and take retributive action against us, we must speak our truth to power; for ultimately, the truest power resides with all of us, by virtue of our vote.
— Carol Voisin lives in Ashland.