Saturday, July 21, 2007

Words May Have Power, but Gossip Is a Firing Offense

This Land
The New York Times
July 22, 2007


Six somber members of the Hooksett Town Council, men with faces set as if in granite, trooped into the public library’s basement the other night to convene what was advertised as a special meeting. The agenda did not concern tax rates or zoning issues, but rather that most public of commodities: words.

Of particular concern: That among the deluge of words released daily in the Hooksett Municipal Building, words about everything from dog licenses to the lunch specials down at Robie’s Country Store, a lingering few uttered months ago concerned the relationship between the town administrator and a certain town employee. You might call it gossip.

The accused gossipmongers, two women whose expressions were also as inflexible as the state rock, sat across from the town elders in plastic chairs that constituted a makeshift dock. Fired from their town jobs for gossiping, they were appealing for reinstatement to the very body that had dismissed them without any semblance of due process.

Also in attendance were two dozen or so local residents, some of whom killed time until the call to order by discussing the persistent failure of an acquaintance to take care of himself. You might call it gossip.

The council chairman banged his gavel and led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the lawyer for Hooksett explained that the dismissed employees had 90 minutes to offer their proof of innocence, but they could not call witnesses or ask questions of the council.

“Speak louder!” an audience member shouted.

Jon Meyer, the lanky lawyer representing the two fired employees, stood to begin his argument. But first he said that in his many years of representing public employees at termination hearings, he had never participated in or even heard of a proceeding such as this. “This is like jousting a ghost,” he said.

Then came another shout: “Can’t hear!”

When the spotlight comes to Hooksett, a town of 13,000 along the Merrimack River, it usually shines on historic Robie’s, where needy presidential candidates come to feign folksiness. But lately that light has been trained on the old, red-brick Municipal Building, where human nature, in the form of gossip, unfolded.

The town administrator and that employee often worked late together, it was said. Behind closed doors, it was said. Their cars the last two in the lot, it was said. Not kosher, it was said.

Word about those words and others reached the administrator, David Jodoin, who is said to be happily married, with children. Extremely upset about the untrue implication of those words, he complained to the Town Council, which dispatched a lawyer to begin a hurried investigation.

The lawyer, who works for the law firm that represents the town, conducted interviews and checked phone records to track the wispy trail of those words — past the “Watch Your Step” sign on the Municipal Building’s front door, down the hall and, finally, to the offices of the town assessor and the code enforcement officer.

She concluded that the conduct of the four employees warranted discipline, and the council agreed. Without publicly stating why, the council promptly fired the assessor, Sandra Piper, a town employee for 27 years; the code enforcement officer, Michelle Bonsteel; and two assistants, one of whom would later admit that she had once referred to Mr. Jodoin as a little you-know-what.

The four women became the Hooksett Four, their firings became national news, and cheap gossip regarding two private people in a small town was shared with an entire country. But Hooksett still had more to say.

After holding a special meeting to consider — and dismiss — the appeal of the two fired assistants, the Town Council issued a statement saying that the gossip reflected “a conscious and concerted effort to damage reputations, to spread untrue stories with the knowledge that they were not true and evidently to retaliate for some perceived preferential treatment.”

Although the statement clearly conveyed outrage and righteousness, it also reflected the council’s struggle with the concept of objectivity. After all, two of the Hooksett Four, the department heads, had yet to appeal their case at a special meeting. Until this night.

Ms. Piper, short and in blue, and Ms. Bonsteel, tall and in black, sat with mouths shut tight, though perhaps a little too late. They left the talking to Mr. Meyer and to Lauren Irwin, the lawyer who conducted the gossip-sleuthing.

Mr. Meyer said his clients never talked of a romantic relationship, but rather were speculating about the favoritism their supervisor was giving a subordinate. Ms. Irwin countered that the four women were clearly implying an affair was taking place; their knowledge that it was baseless only underscored the malice of their words.

Ms. Irwin said the town administrator was so distraught by the gossip that he was “having difficulty functioning,” and feared that his career and family life would suffer. Mr. Meyer countered that this was irrelevant to the proceeding, and that he could just as easily have laid out the profound ways in which the fired employees had also suffered.

And yes, in retrospect, he said his clients should have shared their concerns with Mr. Jodoin, but it was an awkward subject to broach. At the same time, he said, the administrator could have handled the matter internally, rather than complain to the council.

The council announced that it would consider the matter in a “nonpublic” meeting, which is a benign way of saying in private. Then a gavel banged to end this very special meeting, sending people into a thunderstorm-wet Hooksett to contemplate governance, gossip and the awesome power of the word.


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