March 31, 2010

Bill Nemitz: The untold story
of offensive e-mail

It will, no doubt, be the biggest meeting the Casco Board of Selectmen has held in a long time. Maybe the biggest ever.

There will be a crowd of people, some residents of the tiny town and some not, squeezed in to catch a glimpse of Barbara York, the selectwoman who eight months ago hit the "send" button on her computer when she should have opted for "delete."

There will be a phalanx of media types to capture the drama -- and perhaps even the demise of a public servant who by now must know that an e-mail "joke" comparing first lady Michelle Obama to a monkey is, by any civilized measure, not funny.

There will be those who holler that York, anyway you look at it, is a flaming racist and should be banished from public life now and forever. At the same time, there will be others who holler back that she's the victim of a small-town smear campaign and should be left alone.

And then there's Steve Wessler.

"We're in a society that labels people, if they engage in an act that appears to be racist, as being in very large, capital, block letters a RACIST," noted Wessler, executive director of the Portland-based Center for the Prevention of Hate. "As if it defines all of who they are."

Which more often than not, Wessler has learned over the years, it doesn't.

York's life changed forever last week when, during an otherwise routine selectmen's meeting, Casco resident Mary-Vienessa Fernandes stood up with a copy of the e-mail that York sent in July and demanded that she resign from the board immediately.

It was, as they say, must-see TV. And sitting in the audience with a video camera was Jeannine Lauber-Oren, a Casco resident who 10 years ago worked as a TV news anchor for WMTW. (More on that in a minute.)

It's clear from the tape that York never saw this coming. When Fernandes, who is black, finally identified York as the board member behind the e-mail that someone left on her door, it was all York could do to stammer a hasty apology.

"It was sent to me and I sent it on," York said. "I'm sorry if I offended anybody."

York, who has declined numerous requests for interviews, will have another chance to show her contrition when selectmen revisit the issue on Tuesday. Still not clear is what difference it will make.

This story, after all, is about more than just a mindless e-mail masquerading as humor. It's about small-town politics.

In an interview this week, former news anchor Lauber-Oren said she brought her video camera to the selectmen's meeting (for the first time) to help keep track of her ongoing feud with the town over its handling of the Casco Helping Casco fuel assistance fund.

The fuel fight is, as these things usually are, a long and complicated story. But the bottom line is that Lauber-Oren, who serves on Casco Helping Casco's board, is no friend of York, who until last summer was the organization's treasurer.

Upon taping the Fernandes-York exchange, Lauber-Oren made a beeline for what she calls "my friends at Channel 8" along with other local media outlets.

In an e-mail to 19 separate reporters and editors at this newspaper entitled "Racism in CASCO ME -- Elected Official Admits Guilt," Lauber-Oren provided the names and numbers of Fernandes and another black family from Casco that attended the selectmen's meeting.

"Call me if you want a copy of the tape," she advised her onetime colleagues. "It's unbelievable."

Asked if her media blitz may have been motivated, at least in part, by her ongoing battle with York over the fuel assistance fund, Lauber-Oren replied, "Yes, of course it is. I'm already mad at the town. I'm already angry."

(Continued on page 2)

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