FALMOUTH — Now that they’ve wisely placed themselves on the proper side of the First Amendment, town councilors in Falmouth might want to embrace the flip side of our constitutional right to speak freely.
Call it our God-given right to not listen.
“It’s unfortunate that we have one individual who doesn’t understand decorum,” lamented Town Councilor Teresa Pierce in a whopper of an understatement Monday evening before a standing-room-only crowd of clearly concerned citizens.
That individual, as the all the world now knows, is Michael Doyle.
He has lived in Falmouth for the past 26 years, the vast majority of which he went his way while the town’s elected officials went theirs.
But then Doyle got a bee in his bonnet over Maine’s school consolidation law, started attending municipal meetings on a fairly regular basis and, well, it’s been nothing but pure nasty since.
“If you should win re-election I imagine you would supply me with endless opportunities to embarrass you as a councilor,” Doyle wrote in an e-mail this month to Councilor Bonnie Rodden. “I am taking into consideration your role as a councilor, a resident, a wife, and most importantly a mother.”
He went on to warn that unless Rodden dropped her bid for re-election, “I will bring my considerable skill set and intellect to bear against you.”
(Did I mention he’s modest?)
“You may want to discuss your decision with your family,” Doyle continued, “because they will have to live with it as much as you will.” (Did I mention he’s borderline creepy?)
Add to that the laundry list of adjectives and phrases that Doyle has launched via council meetings and e-mails over the past several months at council Chair Cathy Breen, who recently compiled and posted them on the town’s website.
The insult parade includes “banshee, demented, disgusting, ridiculous, snide, abusive, condescending, demeaning, idiotic, stunningly inept, childish, cowardly, and tyrant.” (And that’s just a sampling.)
After condemning Doyle’s diatribes at a meeting on May 10, Breen, Rodden and their colleagues showed up this week armed with all kinds of amendments to a council rule that now directs the chair simply to “preserve decorum and order” during council meetings.
One amendment would have required that each member of the public “confine him or herself to the issue under debate and avoid personal attacks, name-calling, threats, and abusive, slanderous or libelous language.”
Another would have demanded that questions and comments from the public “be courteous in language and deportment, avoid all personalities and never allude to others by name or to motives.”
Enter Maine Civil Liberties Union attorney Kelly McDonald, who correctly cautioned the council in a recent letter that “unpleasant comments are an unavoidable part (perhaps an essential part) of the hurly burly of living in a free and open democracy.”
McDonald, alas, was right. And unanimous councilors, once they’d had time to think about it, stepped back from the brink of de facto censorship Monday and agreed to leave the rules unchanged.
Still, after later spending 20 minutes with Doyle swatting mosquitoes outside the Falmouth Town Office, I couldn’t help but feel genuine sympathy for these elected officials – particularly primary targets Rodden and Breen.
Rodden, Doyle insisted, has it all wrong: That e-mail he sent her was simply his attempt to protect her and her family from what he considers to be Rodden’s ineptitude as an elected official.
“I’m trying to pull her back from the cliff,” Doyle explained. “I thought it would be a kind thing to say: If you do this, this is what’s going to happen.”
Meaning his e-mail, far from being a thinly veiled threat, was actually an attempt to protect Rodden’s family from … Rodden?
“Yes,” Doyle replied.
(He said all of this, it should be noted, with a straight face.)
As for Breen, Doyle said he calls her names only because, in his opinion, she has called other people names and someone needs to even the score. And that someone, naturally, should be Doyle.
I told Doyle that some people might read what he’s written and listen to what he’s said and conclude that he’s a bully.
“Well, I would disagree,” he replied. “I’m actually not a bully. I’m a very nice person. And I don’t need to bully people.”
I also told him that some people might note that his two targets are women and wonder if he doesn’t like having women in positions of authority.
“That’s only because they behave the worst,” Doyle said. “I like women. I have a mother. She just turned 93.”
He went on to promise that if any of the men on the council ever “said something ridiculous,” they’d be in his crosshairs as well.
“If (Vice Chair) Tony Payne were doing this, I’d jump all over him,” Doyle insisted.
“One Republican on top of another Republican! Put that in your article!”
(Done. But I’ve got to say this was feeling creepier by the minute.)
That’s when it hit me. At some point with guys like Doyle, you can keep listening (by now he was telling me that I “threaten” and “intimidate” people, but he’s “not afraid” of me) or just walk away.
I chose the latter.
And as I did, I realized that the Falmouth Town Council’s meeting rules – amended or not – still are no match for this guy. Those poor public servants need something more tangible, something guaranteed to protect them from his next outburst … and the one after that … and the one after that …
They need earplugs.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]