An emailed political message that sparked discord has raised questions about what is fair free speech and respectful advocacy vs mudslinging.
A day before this week’s election, Board of Selectman Chair Dan Kolenda sent out a message endorsing three “excellent candidates” running for one vacant seat. The message didn’t mention the existence of a fourth candidate.
The message was from his personal account, and informally signed Dan. Still, some residents were angered by the action the criticized as an unethical political attack from a sitting selectman.
Now, Kolenda is turning the tables, calling the critics’ words hateful and hurtful. In a Letter to the Editor on this blog, Kolenda argues his right to “freely speak, associate, advocate and vote”. And he defends not naming the candidate he opposed, Sam Stivers, as done out of respect.
Post election, no one has publicly claimed Kolenda’s email changed the final outcome.
In Tuesday’s results, Stivers lost to Brian Shifrin by 58 votes (3%). Shifrin and his family are well known in town, and he appeared to have a strong base of supporters among voters with school aged children.
The issue raised publicly on Wednesday focused on whether Kolenda’s message was truly a positive endorsement or an “underhanded” attack
On Monday morning, Kolenda sent an email to a list he has “created and maintained” over the years. In it, he referred to the vacancy left by the resignation of former Selectman John Rooney and stated:
there are 3 excellent candidates who can continue his legacy of selfless service. . . I have had the honor of working with each candidate.
In between the words of praise, Kolenda listed Doriann Jasinski, Brian Shifrin, and Bill Boland.
Multiple complaints about the email were lodged with Kolenda and/or the board that day.*
The following morning, Kolenda sent a new email urging people to vote that day. That message referred to all four candidates, stating:
Each has an extensive public record for you to research, and each has put themselves up to public scrutiny in running for office. They should be thanked
According to Kolenda’s letter, that second message wasn’t a response to any controversy. He states it was always his plan to send that message out on the day of the election.
Two residents addressed the political issue at Wednesday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting. Louise Barron read sections from each email aloud and called Kolenda’s sending them “underhanded”. She argued that selectmen shouldn’t be endorsing any candidates in town. In a later comment, Karen Shimkus opined, “it was beneath the dignity of the office.”
Kolenda shut down both rebukes, citing the Town’s policy not to allow Town employees to be disparaged in public meetings.
The Chair also claimed that the emails read aloud were “completely out of context”. He followed that since they were sent in his “individual capacity”, he would be happy to speak with them after the meeting.
Following up on the public comments, I reached out to Kolenda for more information on the email distribution list he used and a statement on the issue. He responded with the Letter to the Editor posted just prior to this story. The letter defends the exercising of his free rights and details his rationale for the message.
In it, he doubles down on his right to endorse the other candidates by wondering “in retrospect” if he should have specified his reasons for opposing Stivers. Instead, he explains, he had chosen not to mention Stivers out of respect:
Like in other elections, I am often asked for my opinion on candidates that I think would positively add to our town government, and help move Southborough forward in a responsible way. This election cycle was no different. One of the best avenues for this is through email, and, not unlike so many others, over the years I’ve created and maintained my own list. I was excited about the list of candidates, and saw 3 of the 4 that I considered would be “excellent” for our town, and stated so. The one individual I personally thought would not be
excellent for the town I chose not to mention, simply out of respect.
Kolenda followed that he disagreed with “virtually everything that candidate stands for”, specifying several examples of stances Stivers took with which he passionately disagreed.
He summed up:
Elected officials throughout our Commonwealth and Country are often the most vocal advocates for people and policies. Were those rights taken away, that would be the real controversy.
Kolenda’s letter also states that he apologized to Stivers after Wednesday night’s meeting. Stivers only comment to me on the story was that the email speaks for itself.
*Kolenda’s first email came to my attention on Friday evening. It was sent to me in messages from multiple angry supporters of Stivers. I chose not to cover it at that time.
Among my concerns was the timing. Focusing on a dispute about one candidate on the eve of an election could be perceived as helping or hurting the candidate.
Below is the full text of both emails:
[Monday, November 6, 8:17 am]
Please remember to Vote tomorrow, Tuesday, November 7 for our next Selectman to fulfill the remaining term of former Selectman John Rooney who resigned last April. John dedicated years of outstanding service to our great Town of Southborough, and there are 3 excellent candidates who can continue his legacy of selfless service:
I have had the honor of working with each candidate. Please head to Trottier Middle School (our one voting location) tomorrow and vote for the candidate of your choice. If you’ll be away tomorrow, you can vote absentee at our Town Hall today. A thriving democracy requires active participation from the electorate. Please remember to vote tomorrow!
[Tuesday, November 7, 8:06 am]
Today is Election Day in Southborough and there are 4 qualified candidates from which to chose as your next Selectman. Each has an extensive public record for you to research, and each has put themselves up to public scrutiny in running for office. They should be thanked:
Freedom is not free, please vote today and exercise the right that so many before us have fought and died to preserve.