Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
There will be no LGBTQ+ Pride flag flown at Town Hall, nor any other flag, declared Fairhaven Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas on June 7 ahead of a 2-1 vote to deny School Committee Kyle Bueno’s request to hang the rainbow-striped pride flag for the month of August. Selectboard member Bob Espindola’s motion to approve the flag was not seconded.
Mr. Bueno shared some statistics about the vulnerability of the LGBTQ+ population, especially its younger members who face higher instances of bullying, depression, and suicide.
Noting how American culture has made great strides in awareness and acceptance, Mr. Bueno said, “Of course, there’s still more work that has to be done.”
He said flying the pride flag at Town Hall would show “that our town government fully supports and embraces diversity, it fully supports LGBTQ youth, individuals that live in our town … and I feel, regardless of the visibility, if it impacts one person, if it impacts ten people, even allies who believe in full rights and protection of just anyone in general, that hanging this flag [at] Town Hall means something and it shows that government is for everyone — no matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter where you come from — we show pride and we show that we care about our residents.…”
Mr. Espindola felt flying the pride flag was especially important this year as the community emerges from a pandemic that has left a surge in depression, anxiety, and mental health issues in general. He remarked on the relative lateness of the request already one week into the nationally recognized Pride Month of June, but given that the flag policy all three current Selectboard members adopted in June 2020 requires a request 60-days before the requested flying period, Mr. Espindola noted that Pride Month in town would simply be postponed. However, Mr. Espindola was the only one at the table who would see it this way.
“The only thing I thought was different is having it in August instead of in June, regular Pride Month,” said Selectboard member Keith Silvia. “Everyone has a vote here, so we’ll see what goes on.”
Mr. Freitas said, “Every year we seem to go through this,” and he continued, claiming, “and every year I’ve championed this. We didn’t get it done this year in June.”
Mr. Freitas further claimed to have received three requests last year to fly flags when the topic was still new and said he “begged the people not to do it because it was going to be something that was divisive.
“It seems to come up every year when this happens. I, personally, to me, it’s a flag; if you want to fly it, that’s up to you, but I have to look out for everybody in the town and look out for everybody’s doing. I think we should have just had a flag policy that just said no flags. It would just [have] made our lives much simpler because, eventually, we’re going to have to fly [flags] that people aren’t going to like, and it’s going to cause lots of problems around the town.”
He offered to allow Mr. Bueno to fly the flag at Town Hall “for a couple of hours” one day in August, “But I’m going to be against flying the flag for the month … and I’m going to be against any flag flying for a month…. This way, I don’t have to deal with people coming up to me asking which flags they’re going to fly — I’m going to be against any flag flying at all.”
He called flying the Pride Flag “a slippery slope.”
Mr. Espindola reminded Mr. Freitas that he and Mr. Silvia were both on the board when the flag policy was adopted, and after discussing Town Counsel Tom Crotty’s several drafts across several meetings, the vote to adopt the policy passed unanimously.
He asked Mr. Freitas to share the examples of the flag requests he claimed he received, noting, “It’s interesting that people’s requests only went to you (Mr. Freitas),” since nothing was formally requested by the board.
Mr. Espindola asked Mr. Silvia if he had received any requests; Mr. Silvia claimed he got one in person.
Mr. Espindola emphasized that Mr. Bueno followed the procedure with his request and added, “I don’t see why we would just make a blanket statement that we don’t want any flags flown.”
According to Mr. Freitas, he received requests to fly a Trump flag and the “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag, which originated before the Revolutionary War and popularized during the emergence of the radical conservative “Tea Party” movement. He said a third flag request was “one I don’t even want to get into,” and if the board allows flags such as the Pride flag to fly at Town Hall, “It would seem we had to (fly those other three flags) at that point.”
The flag policy specifies that the board would only grant requests to fly flags acknowledging proclamations by the federal or state government. President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued proclamations for Pride Month within the last seven days. The town’s policy also states that requests to fly flags supporting political candidates or parties would be denied, essentially negating Mr. Freitas’s claim that the town would be forced to fly so-called divisive flags.
“I understand where both of yous are coming from,” said Mr. Silvia, but he would not second Mr. Espindola’s motion to fly the pride flag.
Mr. Freitas offered Mr. Bueno the two hours in August to fly the pride flag, which Mr. Bueno respectfully declined. Mr. Espindola invited Mr. Bueno to his next Office Hour to have a conversation about Pride Month, which Mr. Bueno accepted.
From now on, Mr. Freitas insisted, “I’m going to say ‘no’ to flags. We’re going to end up having to fly a flag that we don’t want to. End of story.”
Earlier in the discussion, Mr. Bueno shared some comments he received from members of the community thanking him for leading the effort to fly the pride flag at Town Hall. One 71-year-old unnamed resident told him, “I plan on being there (for the flag-raising) — and I remember when [I thought] I would never see this happen.”
They won’t see it in 2021, either.
Also during the meeting, Mr. Freitas and Mr. Silvia both rejected allowing for continued remote public participation in Selectboard meetings via Zoom, effective June 15. Mr. Espindola expressed his support for continuing the remote access to meetings indefinitely before the 2-1 vote to end Zoom access to meetings.
Mr. Espindola said that while he opposes allowing for board members to attend remotely, he supports keeping remote access open to residents.
“I’m totally opposite,” said Mr. Silvia, preferring in-person participation only and going “back to the old way,” as he put it.
“I’m going to be against the remote participation,” agreed Mr. Freitas.
He said throughout the town’s use of Zoom during the pandemic he has seen “the nastiest comments” from viewers flash onto the screen, and he said the board has had to endure interruptions from residents on Zoom and other untoward behaviors that Mr. Freitas said residents are more unlikely to display when meetings are held in-person only.
“I’ve seen some nasty stuff,” said Mr. Freitas. “People can say what they want because they don’t have to look you in the eye….”
Mr. Espindola argued that, at a minimum, remote access should be allowed until the town lifts its face mask requirement for visitors to Town Hall.
Director of Cable Access Derek Frates said it has become increasingly difficult to facilitate hybrid in-person/ remote meetings due to logistics and staff shortages; however, he said that he has already generated links to Zoom meetings throughout June.
Mr. Silvia motioned to end public access to meetings via Zoom on June 15, seconded by Mr. Freitas. It passed 2-1, with Mr. Espindola opposed.
In other business, members of the Rogers Re-Use Committee and representatives from the Southeastern Massachusetts Educational Collaborative (SMEC) discussed the potential renovation/lease of the 1950s wing of Rogers School ahead of an executive session to negotiate a leasing agreement.
“I am for this project,” Mr. Freitas declared. He said he had received 15 emails against the project and 10 in favor.
Noting the ongoing mothballing effort of the old school wing, “If SMEC wants to use it and we can come to an agreement with them, then I’m for it.”
He said he wants to avoid a potential $2-3 million demolition of the newer wing and possibly use the main school building as a town hall annex, and lamented a $50-60 million price tag for a new public safety building he said would include other town offices.
“I think we should start thinking about something along those lines,” said Mr. Freitas.
Mr. Espindola, still cautious in his approach to the proposal, cited a June 2-3 thread of emails between him and Planning Board member Wayne Hayward. In that thread, Mr. Hayward accuses the board of “deviating from sound financial planning and prior Town Meeting wishes” by continuing town ownership of the old school. This latest proposal also includes an approximately $700,000 cost-sharing of the renovation still under negotiation.
Mr. Hayward’s argument further included, “This proposal is also a sweetheart deal for one side. The abutters on the committee. You lose money. Every year. The monetary risks of being a landlord to a Rogers school full of elementary children is why the school was abandoned in the first place by cooler heads.”
He further argued that a 10-year lease means “no developer will ever want to pursue this property, even though we are in a heated real estate market condition.”
Mr. Espindola asked Director of Planning & Economic Development Paul Foley to chime in remotely in light of the recent development in federal stimulus money that could provide grants toward a project that would focus mainly on the historic portion of Rogers School. Mr. Espindola said he worried that a lease of the new wing to SMEC would indefinitely obstruct the possibilities.
“It’s time to think about what the future looks like,” said Mr. Espindola. “I think this is a good project,” but he urged the board to hear Mr. Foley’s input before finalizing a lease deal.
According to Mr. Foley, the available grants would not apply to a municipal building like a town hall annex, but more like a non-profit use of the old school. Regardless, in order to apply for grants that may apply, the town needs to be specific in what it wants to do.
Rogers Re-Use Committee member Susan Loo said the mothballing would preserve the main building for about 10 years. Committee member Doug Brady emphasized that the town would be collecting rent from SMEC and the town’s investment would be returned through it. He cautioned against putting up roadblocks to the proposal that the committee has been working on since April and recalled the growing line of failed or rejected proposals leading to now.
Mr. Espindola said the town should still focus on the SMEC project but consider the potential risks involved. Mr. Freitas said he wished the new information on federal grants was known to him beforehand.
“I’m supporting this,” said Mr. Freitas.
“I’m supporting it 100 percent,” said Mr. Silvia.
Mr. Espindola said he would support it if risks are mitigated.
In other business, the board accepted the gift of a 5.57-acre parcel of saltmarsh at Boys Creek, formerly Eversource property, which will be under the care and control of the Fairhaven Conservation Commission. The Buzzards Bay Coalition facilitated the acquisition. Allen Decker of the BBC went before the board and said the acquisition was part of a larger project to expand the Fort Phoenix State Reservation partially funded by Community Preservation Act funding approved at the Special Town Meeting in October 2020.
The board approved the on-street handicap parking sign requested by Scott Hyman of 54 Bayview Drive, despite a prior recommendation that the request be denied due to the presence of a driveway and a garage at the address. Mr. Hyman stated that he has been disabled since an automobile accident and needed another parking spot for his vehicle because he was already using his driveway and garage to store his other vehicles.
Mr. Freitas said he has a “soft spot” for the disabled and requested that the parking sign be installed as soon as possible. Mr. Silvia stated that he spoke with someone from Housing Discrimination Under the Fair Housing Act who told him Mr. Hyman is entitled to the spot; however, the parking spot will be located as close to the house as possible, but not on the side requested because of its designation as a hydrant side of the street and is therefore unlawful to park on during winter months.
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