Peggy Matthews-Nilsen: Legitimate disagreements

Published: 08-31-2023 5:44 PM

Once again Amherst is in the news for public leaders resigning and once again the explanation is that politics in Amherst is too “vitriolic.” What appears to pass unnoticed is that vitriol as an explanation places blame only on the aggrieved, glossing over the reasons why some disagree so strongly.

Amherst’s new form of government brought a value shift away from public engagement as a necessary, messy part of the democratic process. Amherst once proudly proclaimed its unofficial town motto, “Amherst: Where only the ‘h’ is silent.” Those days are over. Now, disagreement is viewed as problematic.

We should be asking, who is it in Amherst who now views public engagement as an obstacle? Why do members of our community feel so disrespected that they express vitriol? What is the goal of our town governing bodies if not the public good voiced by all its residents? These are the central questions.

In the town’s latest fiasco, which harmed LGBTQ+ students, the powers that be placed school staff members, who were all people of color, on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into what happened at Amherst Regional Middle School. The white superintendent who supervised those same staff members was permitted to stay on the job.

This decision reeked of racial privilege and one did not need to be a person of color to view the unfairness of this action. I, and many in the community called for fair action by also placing the superintendent on administrative leave. This step could have conveyed fairness and helped restore trust with the common good as a priority. Instead, powerful voices in town, notably members of the Amherst Forward PAC, launched a public relations effort focused entirely on asserting the superintendent was “a good leader.”

This focus on reputation ignored the fact that even good leaders make mistakes that can cause harm, and placed individual interest above the common good. Whenever the common good is replaced by individual interests, democracy loses. And we, the people, lose.

Peggy Matthews-Nilsen



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