Harwich Facebook Page Causes Friction

by William F. Galvin

HARWICH – The friction between members of the select board and the social media Harwich Old Timers Facebook page has been evident for a couple of years, with board members reacting in public sessions to comments made by either the platform’s administrator, Sandra Hall, or members of the page.

The intensity level has increased in the past couple of weeks with comments coming in both directions over the select board’s decision to cease golf committee meetings until two of its members resign or until their terms expire on June 30.

“It’s official. Several members of our select board and our town administrator have simply lost their minds,” read a post from Hall leading into her weekly assessment of the board’s meeting agenda. Her comment was directed at the board’s attempt to have two members of the committee resign.

“She has lost her mind and is trying to control this town through a social media platform. It’s a disgrace,” Select Board member Michael MacAskill said during a discussion on the issue at the board’s meeting on Nov. 27.

“The board is being put in the position of [the platform] crucifying us for employees leaving, and at this point crucifying us for protecting the employees,” he said. “The only one in the group who has lost their mind is Sandra Hall herself. I hope people are paying attention to what’s going on in this social media site because it’s destroying this town.”

MacAskill said it is important to get the board’s position on the golf committee resignations out to the public. Those who want to comment on Facebook “and argue like we’re in high school, behind a keyboard, they can continue to do that, but I think any member of the public that actually listened to what select board member [Jeffrey] Handler just said, and listened to the facts that this board is protecting employees, is going to have a hard time going on a social media platform, and the ones that do, are showing exactly what I said tonight. Ridiculous,” he said.

MacAskill said the board is dealing with someone who thinks she is the unofficial mayor of Harwich. He cited Hall’s role as the chair of the town’s first charter commission in 1987 and her efforts to change the charter “because she is not controlling the board and the employees, and it’s driving her crazy.”

MacAskill also took issue with comments on the page from nonresidents and people who just wanted their names associated with issues.

Said board member Julie Kavanagh, “That raised a number of good points about social media, and here we are dictating to our kids on how they should act on it, and we have adults all over town who actually shouldn’t have any kind of membership on any social media page, if they can’t actually vet information, understand this is a public venue, and it’s not behind a keyboard. It’s not to malign this board every single time we don’t feel the same way they do, and try to do it for the public good.”

MacAskill said there are two key issues that concern him: bullying and the amount of disinformation published on the Harwich Old Timers page.

“It’s become a platform of hate,” MacAskill said in a later interview.

“It’s inappropriate, the select board shouldn’t be attacking private citizens with a different opinion,” Hall responded to the comments.

“I have opinions, but I’m not trying to ruin the town of Harwich. I’m trying to keep from ruining the town of Harwich. I have zero political ambitions. Think about it, I’ve got nothing to gain. I’m not going to run for the select board, and I’m not looking for a job,” Hall said in an interview.

Hall served as a selectman in Harwich for 11 years. She currently serves on the bylaw/charter review committee.

“I haven’t lost one night’s sleep over this…I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it benefits the town,” she said. “I’ve been doing it for nine years and people tell me they appreciate it.”

What MacAskill fails to realize, she said, is that there are 3,450 members of the page and they are not only Old Timers, they are taxpayers and voters.

“Every time he pulls one of those rants, I get new members signing up the next morning,” said Hall.

MacAskill said it is not as much the platform as it is the administrator that he objects to. He said if Hall disagrees with a post, she removes it. He added there is a small group on the platform, five to 10 members, who immediately attack a post providing a different opinion, then it gets removed. He said most members of the platform are casual readers who go on it for entertainment.

“My trusted and loyal friends ask me why I let her get to me. She’s irrelevant to me,” said MacAskill.

“There is no place in the world where bullying on this level is acceptable,” he added. “I would challenge anyone to find a selectman, other than Donald Howell, who hasn’t been shredded by Sandra Hall in the last 10 years.”

“He does not take criticism lightly,” said Hall of MacAskill.

Hall is presently circulating a petition that would call for establishing a charter commission and electing a nine-member group to revisit and update the more than 35-year-old document.

“I think it’s going well. I haven’t had anybody turn it down yet,” she said.

“I don’t know where the select board gets the authority to suspend the work of a committee,” Hall said of the board’s vote last week to suspend golf committee sessions. “There is no mechanism in the charter to enforce anything.”

Hall said she is 100 percent certain she will not be reappointed to the charter/bylaw review committee when her term expires in May.

“They want to blame me for people not volunteering,” Hall said.

But people see the way the town administrator treated affordable housing trust member Judith Underwood and the way the select board treated a former conservation commission chairman and now the golf committee, she said.

“If you incur the wrath of the select board, they are going to shut you down,” said Hall.

“Why would anyone want to be a town administrator, select board member or serve on a committee when you get attacked on a day-to-day basis with non-factual information?” said MacAskill.

MacAskill said he would like to write a response when the administrator is going on a rant, but select board members have to be careful not to violate the open meeting law.

As for the Harwich Old Timers page, it’s strictly about Harwich, it does not get into state and national politics, and it’s not a platform for advertising, unless it’s a nonprofit group, according to Hall. Hall said she vets applicants to be sure they have a connection to Harwich, whether they live here, have grown up here, are part-time residents, or have expressed an interest in moving here.

“I’m not in the business of lying, or making things up, and I’ve made mistakes,” Hall said.

“I do enjoy it. I like the interaction with people, I enjoy the interaction with people I even disagree with,” said Hall. “I tend to ignore the rants against the page, and I will continue doing what I’m doing. I think we’ve done some good.”