A look into the archives
Ward Three sprawls over a big area, and is one of the most important and well organized wards in Northampton. Mayors regularly attend meetings of their powerful neighborhood association. It has a piece of downtown and a variety of residential neighborhoods. There are modest homes around Hockanum Road, well-to-do mansions lining Phillips Place, the up and coming urban neighborhood along Market Street, and the streets bordering the Coca Cola plant. A Chinese wall splits the ward in two, a massive dike that protects the town from the river. And then there are the meadows, where it is so rural you might as well be in Iowa.
Start with a walk along Ferry Street out by the airport. To your right is a great swathe of farm fields with the richest soil in the northeast. It’s a great place to walk and get away from the noise and congestion. To your left are small planes practicing their landings and takeoffs. You’re positioned for some great sunsets. The town seems far away, just a couple distant steeples poking up over the tree line. One of those faraway churches is also in Ward Three where it meets downtown.
Angela Plassman lived out here in the meadows. Out in back of her family’s modest farmhouse, there used to be the infamous trailer/manufactured home that her mother lived in before Wayne Feiden dropped a bomb on her family and us. A Gazette reporter showed up to photograph it and discovered nothing left but a small pile of lumber. It had been towed away. Overnight, the weather warnings that the Gazette posts on scandals were downgraded, and the affair was termed a “flap”. Their reporters went on to other matters. Angela had quit, blaming an unidentified city administrator for the uproar.
In the fall of 2010 she had won her seat on the City Council representing Ward Three, defeating Robert Reckman, the influential incumbent. She ran on a platform of healing what she called “a disconnect” between Northampton voters and city government. She campaigned vigorously, leafleting downtown and out in the neighborhoods. This was soon after the arson fires in Ward Three. She gave a forceful speech at the College Church on the arson problem, and raised money for the victims. She took farsighted controversial positions right from the beginning, coming out for “action to address drug use in our schools, the meadows, and the neighborhoods, with education, treatment and enforcement.” (Mar 17 2010, Valley Advocate) Reckman was asked at an election meeting if Northampton had a drug problem; He said no. Plassman got out and really worked hard for her votes. Reckman seemed to think that he could coast through against the efforts of a political neophyte. Plassman won, sending shockwaves through the town’s establishment.
From the get-go, however, she faced hostility from some of her fellow councilors and the media. Angela wasn’t a professional. She had worked for the city as a secretary, and her last job before going to work for the UMass police was being an assistant to the City Council. Now she was suddenly a councilor and the going was rough. Classism and sexism was at work. Every time she opened her mouth at a council meeting, Councilor Paul Spector would interrupt her and talk over her.
The first blood was drawn when Plassman and Gene Tacy dropped in on the Police Chief to talk to him about some issues. I think Angela needed the Chief’s help to frame a resolution she wanted to sponsor that would inhibit teenagers use of marijuana. This was routine stuff. This is what you do as a councilor, you talk to department heads about how to frame your resolution so that it will translate as useful law. There were only three people in that room. Plassman, Tacy and the Chief. A couple days later, there was a big article on the meeting in Northampton Media (an online newspaper), and David Reid filed a complaint that this meeting was a violation of the open meeting law. The Gazette and the Union jumped on the issue.
I called up the Chief of Police and tried my best to get a straight answer out of him as to how Reid found out about the meeting. Who called who? Who emailed who? Who met with who? He couldn’t remember. Then he got on his computer and refreshed his memory. “Oh that meeting.” He admitted that after Plassman and Tacy had left, he got to thinking that the public safety committee, which they belonged to, had three members, and the two of them were a quorum. It looked to him like a violation of the open meeting law. He admitted to me he was wrong, but he still can’t remember who called who.
“Do you mean I call people up and say, hey guess what just happened?” he said, “I don’t do that!”
But his amnesia bothered me. We waltzed around for about fifteen minutes on the phone, going nowhere. Yes, he admitted, he and Reid were friends from way back. They played golf together. Reid has his private email address on his computer. How did he find about this meeting? Tacy and Plassman didn’t call anyone. The president of the City Council, no friend of either councilor investigated, and found no violation of open meeting laws, and the DA concurred.
They had fallen into a trap. When it’s in the paper, people will say, oh Plassman and Tacy are playing games. They will remember the accusation and forget that the charge had been dismissed. The guys that ran the Gazette were big time newspaper people who dish out reprimands; they don’t take them. They don’t know what it is like to face the personal attacks that come with being a city councilor, the hostility and sarcasm that hurt our loved ones. I do. When I was on the Northampton City Council I was ready to quit more than once. No one who has ever had an unflattering article about them on page one knows what it is like.
But let’s get back to Chief Russell Sienkiewicz If he thought there was a violation of the open meeting law, what should he have done? Maybe call up the City Solicitor and ask her opinion, and if she concurs, take it to the president of the City Council. Proper Channels, I think they call them. Not leak to Reid who you know is dying to get the goods on these particular city councilors. There was a regular torrent of negative stories that winter about Angela in Northampton Media. When she didn’t show up for a city committee meeting one night, it was noticed. This is what her road looked like.
Moving in for the Kill
Who told the Gazette about the trailer? My bet it was someone in the ward association. It wasn’t a neighbor. I worked the Ferry Street area and the people who lived there loved Angela and thought she was a victim of harassment. I quizzed Wayne Feiden on the matter and didn’t get much out of him.
Wayne is a tough case. He is so disarming and friendly and open and seemingly non-defensive. You feel like punching him sometimes, but how can you punch someone who is smiling and affable and almost everyone’s friend? He’ll return your phone calls promptly, he is approachable. Someone who has given us bike paths we use every day.
Wayne told Conservation Commissioner Kevin Lake that a neighbor had complained that someone who lived in the flood plain was using their trailer as a domicile. There was some awkwardness, said Wayne, because that person was a city councilor. Kevin told him to go ahead and take action, it didn’t matter.
I asked Wayne about the Kevin Lake statement. He waffled around, he went back to his basic story that they had multiple complaints. They came in over the phone; he didn’t take the calls personally. “The Planning Department doesn’t care where the allegation comes from; they just care if it is true.”
“I assume,” I said, “That the department has written procedures that guard the confidentiality of callers.”
“No,” he said, emphatically, “There are no written rules. It’s just what we have always done. We take complaints in writing, we take them orally, we take them anonymously, we do them on the basis of drive-arounds. If we didn’t move against Angela because she was a city councilor, you’d be right on us.”
If his action had taken place in the context of the city conducting an enforcement against all the people living in trailers along the river without permits, that would be one thing. If there had been other citations issued to riverfront dwellers I would have ground my teeth together, but I would have shut up and gone away. There are a lot of trailers out in the meadows, and the city has left them alone. I went out and took some pictures of them.
I even found a newly constructed small trailer park, a subdivision of sorts on the riverbank, complete with paved roads and a storage building.
When Wayne Feiden wrote his little letter to the building inspector and told him to investigate the Plassmans, he misused his power. And suddenly Angela had had enough, and she said screw you, I quit. And it was the city’s loss. And then everyone tut-tutted, and everyone says if she can’t take the heat she should get out of the kitchen. I was in the kitchen myself. One night I voted the wrong way on an issue, and angered the city building inspector. The next day he was out at my house inspecting my newly constructed deck. I had gotten a permit, my stepson and I had built it. Henry got out his tape measure. It was three inches too high. I was going to have to build a railing. OK, he was right. But the timing made the motivation clear, it was retaliation and intimidation. It was putting a new city councilor in his place. We cured the problem, not by building an unnecessary railing, but by making the ground higher. I bought a load of gravel and graded it out and called him up and asked him to inspect it. I passed.
Timing and motivation is what divides a legitimate enforcement from harassment and abuse of power. The building inspector was right on the deck; Wayne was right that Plassman needed a permit for the trailer. But hey, it’s the timing, it’s the leaking to the press, it’s the rapid action that the building inspector took on a minor matter, it is obvious payback for Plassman being politically incorrect on a number of issues. It’s Wayne Feiden generating bad publicity for a candidate that he and his people want to get rid of, and there was someone ready to take her place.