Brookfield town officials see red over controversial sign
BROOKFIELD - When it comes to stirring up controversy, John David Holdcraft is old-school.
Instead of tweets or Facebook, Mr. Holdcraft, who is not a fan of computers and has no email, makes his opinions known for all who pass by on the busiest thoroughfare in town, Route 9, on an 8-foot-by 4-foot double-sided sign.
In early 2009, then Selectmen James W. Allen and Rudolf "Rudy" Heller started complaining about Mr. Holdcraft's display of political opinions and criticism of town officials. Mr. Holdcraft often mentioned them by name on the sign.
However, on March 24, 2009, selectmen announced their "hands are tied" when it came to attempting to silence Mr. Holdcraft.
Through the years, his controversial postings include: "Following Rudys Policies is like drinking Jim Jones KoolAid!" (February 2008); "Back in the day, (Selectmen) Peter (O'Connell) & Rudy (Heller) would have been tarred and feather (sic)" (September 2011); and "This Beth person don't fly straight. Deceitful & Phony to boot" (May 2014), referring to Beth L. Coughlin, who is openly gay, ran against Stephen J. Comtois II for selectman (and lost by three votes) and served as the Advisory Board Committee with Mr. Holdcraft.
The Advisory Committee Chairman, Mr. Holdcraft said the sign posting about Ms. Coughlin had nothing to do with her sexual orientation but rather her allegedly not telling the truth about town politics. Either way, Ms. Coughlin, who no longer serves in a town position, said she believes the 2014 posting was an attack on her sexuality or her character.
"Face to face, all the time that I had working directly with him on the Advisory Committee, he and I were actually, relatively speaking, respectful of one another," Ms. Coughlin said. "The only point of contention he and I had was when I ran for selectman, him putting up what I consider a slur up on his sign â€¦ I thought what he put up there was abhorrent, unprofessional and not in keeping with how we should be treating each other in public."
Ms. Coughlin said Mr. Holdcraft's actions were very intimidating and she believes it detracted from people getting the job done and involved in municipal government.
At the Dec. 13 meeting of selectmen, Selectman Clarence R. Snyder said he asked that his name to be removed from the sign but Mr. Holdcraft refused. Recent sign messages have included, "Clarence Snyder is hiding the truth behind the wall with his lies" and "Clarence Snyder You Cannot Negotiate the Truth."
"He (Mr. Snyder) doesn't tell the truth on what goes on in our town," Mr. Holdcraft said, refusing to be specific. "He supports the bad town employees. When they do bad actions and they are not accountable for their actions, he steps in and protects them."
"Mr. Holdcraft has the right to have the sign. He's permitted to have the sign and has the right in the perspective of the First Amendment to say what he wishes to say," Mr. Snyder said in the December meeting.
"On the other hand, he is also a representative of the town and given that he is a representative of the town, certainly decorum is necessary. And I do not believe that naming names on the sign suggesting that a particular selectman is lying, or otherwise, is appropriate behavior," Mr. Snyder said.
But Mr. Holdcraft counters, "What they're trying to do here is to tie me as being a town employee so they can say you're out of control with your sign and you're causing a hostile environment for town employee through my sign."
He added, "But they don't understand that they can't connect that sign with me and the town because that's my private property. What I do with my sign is freedom of speech."
In response, Mr. Holdcraft picked up a metal wastebasket in a corner of the room, slammed it on the table next to Mr. Snyder and threw the letter into the wastebasket, without glancing at its contents.
"It was a statement, and I made a good statement, and now everybody's saying, 'Oh, now I see why, because everything Clarence says is going to go into the trash' because you reprimand me for my freedom of speech on my own private property," Mr. Holdcraft said. "And what's funny is, I was doing this sign before these people put me on this finance board. The selectmen appointed me on this board and I've been on and off this board three times."
Mr. Holdcraft and Mr. Snyder's stormy relationship goes back many years. In 2009, the Board of Registrars investigated whether Mr. Holdcraft lived in town or in Sturbridge after a complaint from Mr. Snyder. At the time Mr. Holdcraft called the questioning of his residency a "witch hunt." On April 30, 2009, the Board of Registrars agreed Mr. Holdcraft is a resident of Brookfield and can legally cast his ballot.
In December, Mr. Snyder asked that town counsel (KP Law) opine whether Mr. Holdcraft is a town employee and if his acts constitute creating a "hostile work environment."
Mr. Holdcraft countered, "I'm not a town employee. I'm a volunteer, 100 percent volunteer."
"If you want to stay off the sign, tell the truth," he advised.
It appears determining what is freedom of speech lies in who is speaking.
Also at the Dec. 13 meeting, Water Commission member Kermit A. Eaton, who has allegedly been called a "Nazi" and accused of "goose-stepping around town" by Mr. Holdcraft, said, "If you disagree with Dave Holdcraft, he puts you up on the sign and says he's telling the truth ... That, to me, is a form of harassment."
Personnel Committee Mary Lou Knight, who attended the December meeting, was once featured on Mr. Holdcraft's sign when they were both serving on the Advisory Board. She told the Telegram & Gazette that Mr. Holdcraft's actions are inappropriate, especially for someone who she considers to be a town official.
"I'm all for free speech but I think he uses the sign as a weapon to keep people from volunteering in town or from speaking out," Ms. Knight said.
"If you say anything that he disagrees with, you're going to show up on the sign. So he's basically using it as a weapon ... Anyone who disagrees with him is a liar," she added.
Mr. Snyder said he's shifting his focus from Mr. Holdcraft's sign to what he calls Mr. Holdcraft's examples of profanity, slurs and aggressive actions toward others that would constitute inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
Laura RÃ³tolo, Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said Mr. Holdcraft has the right of free speech as a private citizen and the right to criticize public officials, which he is doing on his sign.
"The First Amendment protects derogatory speech. It protects speech that's uncomfortable and insulting," Ms. RÃ³tolo said. "And just because we don't like speech doesn't mean it's not protected."
In terms of behavior, Ms. RÃ³tolo said there's a line. And, without further research, she cannot rule if Mr. Holdcraft has crossed that line on not.
"There's a line where behavior can turn into harassment, where it's not free speech, where you threaten someone in a way that is credible and immediate. That's not protected speech," Ms. RÃ³tolo said. "If the trash can that he put on the table actually hit somebody, that wouldn't be speech that was protected. That would be assault."
Donna L. Neylon, former administrative assistant for the town, said she doesn't know if Mr. Holdcraft has a legal right to the messages he places on his sign but thinks he should be a little more careful of what he puts up there for all to see.
"He's a bully. He's nothing but a bully," Mrs. Neylon said. "He's pretty cruel at times. He hurts people's feelings and there's no call for it."
When asked if he's feels he is creating a hostile work environment, Mr. Holdcraft, who is also on the Planning Board and Bylaw Committee, said, "Absolutely not."
"Whatever I say on the sign is what's going on in town," Mr. Holdcraft said. "Whatever the employees are doing, it's on the sign."