Due Process Absent in Harassment Case
Being a Selectman is tough. You work long, sometimes thankless hours, grapple with complex and sometimes relentless issues, only to have someone (like me) tell you what you did wrong every week in the paper or the blogosphere. The thing is, though, that criticism and citizen input is part - an integral part - of the business of being an elected official - and a leader. Some officials become preoccupied with what the public says and does and determine their courses of action accordingly. These politicians tend to spend too much time balancing what is right versus gauging the political winds, lose their way in the process and tend not to last long. Others understand that the public has a need - and a right - to voice their opinions and can actually contribute to good decision making. These public servants tend to have staying power, and develop into good listeners and sometimes great leaders.
The recent decision of the Selectmen to oust Peter Waasdorp from his volunteer position on the Conservation Commission was an unfortunate example of the former. In this case, the Selectmen began the entire process in defense mode, not wanting to garner criticism or ill will from an indignant and misguided Commission Chair and her perceived constituency. This near maddening effort to minimize the fallout from a complaint that has proven to be flimsy at best became the dog that led this sled to the end of the race, only no one won in this contest: surely not the accused, absolutely not the accuser, and most certainly not the dismissed and ignored public.
I am not a Selectman and I did not sit on this hearing, so perhaps there is information and evidence that was not part of the public process - and that will undoubtedly be among the roiled retorts to this column - but if that is the case, that very fact is a huge part of the problem here. The Selectmen, by not allowing Waasdorp some basic rights afforded to the harshest of criminals in our society, are simply expecting that we will trust their judgment in this case. We cannot.
Wikipedia, the citizens' encyclopedia, a reflection of our society and its mores, defines due process as "the principle that the government must respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person according to the law of the land, instead of respecting merely some or most of those legal rights." By offering a truncated process where the allegations of the accuser became more prominent and important than the defense of the accused, the Selectman have indeed respected only some rights, namely those of the complainant. Waasdorp's hopes for a course of action in which he would be afforded due process, the rights owed to him by a just and free society, fluttered out a window in Town Hall's corner office when the decision was made to conduct a tight-lipped and minimized public hearing that simply relied on the singular source of a hearing officer's report. This decision, although it may have followed the letter of the law, violated every standard of fairness, was absolutely ill-advised and unfair, and served to invite and incite the very criticism the Selectmen hoped to avoid by not conducting a proper hearing. There was no "right to face the accuser;" there was no "right to be heard;" there was no "right to speak in one's defense." Simply put, there was no justice.
The facts in this case have been well publicized, which is why they have not been rehashed in any great detail here. Waasdorp, in a perhaps overly ambitious and even insensitive effort to make his point on a battle in the cranberry wars, offered spirited e-mails to Commission Chair Karen Wilson, who found them to be troubling, if not harassing. Few issues in our recent history have had the venom and visceral reactions associated with them as the cranberry wars; the facts of this complaint have more to do with firing volleys on this epic battle than harassment. Even that fact, though, became blurred by the Selectmen's intent on conducting a process designed singularly for damage and image control and never designed to reach a reasonable conclusion, never to give an opportunity for cooler heads to prevail.
I don't doubt that Karen Wilson believes with every fiber of her being that she is right and is defending the honor of victims everywhere. I know Peter Waasdorp believes just that. The problem is, without a fair process, without due process, we, the people, will never know.
This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.