Sonbonmatsu Letter to Select Board

Letters to Town Leaders

Originally sent to the Arlington Select Board September 11, 2019

Dear Members of the Select Board:

For many months now, I have been made deeply upset by the Town leadership’s inept handling of the Officer Pedrini case.  Up until last Monday night, though, I had viewed the Select Board itself neutrally, and I had been willing to give Board members, whom I do not know personally, the benefit of the doubt.  I am writing you now to say that I no longer feel this way. I can see clearly now that the Board has become part of the problem. Though Chair Mahon said at the meeting that she hoped the hearing would calm the waters and enable our community to “move on,” her own actions and words will produce exactly the opposite effect, exacerbating the divisions in our community.

Let me say first that I appreciated the thoughtfulness and sincerity of the alternative proposal that was put forward during the meeting by Mr. Curro at Monday’s meeting, and that I was also moved by the courage shown by Mr. DeCourcey during the meeting, when he expressed his reservations about voting to “endorse” the Town Manager’s letter.  These, to me, were the high points in the proceedings. Alas, these conscientious interventions came to little in the end, for reasons I will now explain. 

Here’s what happened on Monday night, when we get down to it:  incredibly, after sitting on its hands for a year and failing to issue a single public statement or to hold a single hearing inviting commentary about the Pedrini crisis, the Board decided to hold a vote to *endorse* the Town Manager’s entirely self-serving and self-exculpatory letter, released last month, which portrayed the town as having made all the right calls in handling the Pedrini case, and, by extension, in handling too the ensuing public outcry over its botched approach to that same case. 

The fact that the Board publicly reaffirmed its confidence in the Town Manager’s handling of this case, in spite of the testimony by numerous citizens expressing serious concerns about it, was a heavy blow for me and others.  What that vote in effect said to me, to others in the room, and to hundreds of other Arlington residents who have felt angry, hurt, confused, and upset by the Town’s handling of Pedrini’s case, was this: “We reject, unequivocally and in toto, your criticisms of the Town’s handling of the case.   Thank you for your comments: now, sit down, shut up, go away, and let our community get back to healing.” 

It is difficult, surely, to imagine a more insulting response by elected officials to the valid, heartfelt, well-reasoned, well-documented concerns of hundreds of residents.  Many, many residents have invested dozens and hundreds of hours of their personal time to research the Pedrini case over the last half year. They have lobbied town officials and committees, investigated the APD’s past performance, sought to raise public awareness about racism in our town.  They have issued FOIA requests and written articles, held protests, written and circulated petitions. And they have done all this in good faith, in a sincere effort to better our community and to promote social justice. Yet these are the very people whom Chair Mahon publicly belittled and bullied in her remarks, even as she piled encomiums on the Town Manager and the APD.  The Chair and at least two other Board members indeed fell over themselves in lavishing praise on the APD, without however evincing any similar passion or concern for the thousands of vulnerable Arlington residents put at risk by Officer Pedrini and other officers who share his views. It was Orwellian to hear.

It was also Orwellian, the height of bad faith and hypocrisy, for Ms. Mahon to claim repeatedly at the meeting that the Board was prohibited, due to “the separation of powers,” from responding in any substantive way to citizens’ concerns about the Town’s handling of the Pedrini case (despite the fact–by the Board’s own admission–that the Town Manager serves at the leisure of the Board itself, and is accountable to it).  I say it was bad faith and hypocrisy for the Chair to say all this while at the same time calling for a vote to endorse the Town Manger’s handling of the Pedrini case, in effect giving the Town Manager the Board’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval on his actions to date. 

According to Chair Mahon, the Board put the Pedrini case on the Board’s agenda on Monday night out of a desire to “hear from the community” and to allow “healing” to occur.  But “hearing” the public means just that: it means taking their complaints seriously and addressing them in good faith; it means admitting error when error is noted, and seeking to remedy past mistakes.  The Board, however, did none of these things. Instead, it circled the wagons by rallying around the Town Manager and dismissing his critics as “undermining” his “leadership.” Literally adding insult to injury, moreover, the Chair Mahon angrily accused the town leadership’s critics of hurting the “morale” of the APD and sullying the good name and reputation of our fair community–as if this whole controversy were their fault, and the APD and the town were blameless.  Talk about shooting the messenger: I’m still pulling out the buckshot. 

It disturbs me greatly that members of this Board still seem to see nothing amiss in anything the town’s behavior in the past year.  The Board chair repeatedly urged that critics of the town “move on” and find “closure” with the process. But there remain too many unanswered questions in this case for anyone with a social conscience, or merely with an interest in transparent government, to rest content.  Why wasn’t Officer Pedrini wasn’t fired outright, as should have occurred? Why weren’t former APD chief Ryan’s warnings that Officer Pedrini was unlikely to express sincere “remorse” for his statements not heeded? Why was his case, in a completely unprecedented action, shunted through such an absurdly flawed restorative justice process?  

When acting APD chief Julie Flaherty and the Town Manager very briefly fielded questions a few months ago at the only public hearing held in Arlington on the Pedrini matter (under the auspices of the Diversity Task Force), and Chief Flaherty was asked whether other APD officers sympathize with Officer Pedrini’s side of this case, she frankly acknowledged that opinion was divided.  That told me and others everything we needed to know about the APD and the attitudes of its officers: that there should be even a single officer on the town’s payroll who agrees with the racist, violent, xenophobic attitudes spewed by Pedrini in the MPA newsletter was shocking news. It was however as clear a sign as one could ask for that the town urgently needs to investigate the attitudes and behavior of its officers, all of them.

As the Town Manager himself makes clear in his public letter, he and the APD unilaterally set up the parameters of Pedrini’s “rehabilitation” from the start, holding three “circles” consisting entirely of Town leaders and police officials and officers.  Incredibly, these same individuals then went on to participate also in the second “circle.” Much has been made of the fact that five people of color and/or representatives of various underserved communities in Arlington had been invited to participate in this process, but of the 14 people present in the second circle, 70% were apparently white, and there were as may town and police officials participating as citizens representing various token segments of the population.  No one to this day knows exactly how these individuals were picked. But it is evident that the Town Manager exercised unilateral discretion in forming the circles. What will be done to ensure that similar cases are handled differently in future? 

From the start, the Town Manager seems to have sought a path designed to rescue Pedrini’s career and to rehabilitate his public reputation, while at the same time enabling the town to sweep the whole matter under the rug as swiftly and with as little liability as possible.  But to have believed, if he and other town officials truly did believe, that such a process could be relied upon to “redeem” a veteran officer, a man in his 50s, who has developed extremist right-wing views over the course of a lifetime, and who was bold enough even to publish them in a newsletter to his peers across the state:  I say, to have believed that such an individual was likely to achieve some good Christian epiphany and suddenly “see the light” as a result of a speaking, for a few hours, to a handful of town officials and cherry-picked citizens: such a conceit demonstrates either stunning liberal naivete or startling Machiavellian cynicism. In either case, it was a terrible error of judgment and a travesty of true justice. 

I am not writing here to demonize Adam Chapdelaine, a man I do not know and towards whom I feel not the slightest personal animus. Perhaps he acted in good faith, and to the best of his abilities–I have no way of knowing.  But that is simply not to the point here. Good people, too, sometimes make mistakes, even serious ones. And that is what has happened here: the Town Manager, however well-meaning, has made a series of terrible blunders that have had the consequence of endangering the vulnerable members of our community, eroding the public’s trust in its local officials, and sending the dangerously equivocal message to the wider world that, in essence, the Town of Arlington is willing to tolerate violent forms of hate speech within the ranks of its police force–so long as the perpetrator issues an equivocal, self-serving “apology” for his behavior, afterwards.

What troubles me even more that Pedrini’s original comments is the way our town’s leaders have dealt with them.  It is not right that the Board has thrown the weight of its authority and reputation behind the Town Manager’s handling of this case.  It is not right, either, that some members of the Board have taken to publicly belittling the valid concerns and complaints of numerous its citizens in our community. 

I urge members of the Board to chart a new, different course, under new leadership.  I urge you to be open to a genuine dialogue with members of this community, about how we might all move forward together.  Until the town’s leadership frankly admits to its errors, however, and begins to remedy them, our community will be on the road neither to truth nor to reconciliation.  Nor will this matter be put to rest. As the saying goes: No justice, no peace.

Sincerely,

John Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D.
Arlington resident
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Worcester Polytechnic Institute