From Redmen furor, a call to civic engagement Natick group’s organizer urges new focus on local government

The Boston Globe

February 15, 2009 Sunday
THIRD EDITION


BYLINE: Megan McKee Globe Correspondent

SECTION: WEST; Pg. Reg1

LENGTH: 1083 words

He led the unsuccessful effort to keep Natick High’s sports teams as the Redmen, but these days, Jimmy Brown has plans that stop nothing short of changing the way politics are done in town.

Brown has created the Natick Forever Political Action Committee, a spinoff of last year’s Redmen Forever group. The group’s kickoff event was a Tuesday night debate, moderated by Brown, between candidates for selectman in next month’s election.

The Natick Forever PAC hopes to harness the momentum generated by the nickname debate into a broad base of civic engagement, and in the process hold the government it feels snubbed voters accountable to the will of the people.

“We must continue to let them know our opinions and we need to get out and vote,” said Brown. “How can you not listen to two-thirds of the people?”

After the School Committee dropped the Redmen name in 2007, considering it demeaning to Native Americans, a nonbinding ballot question asking the board to “reconsider its decision” was backed by two-thirds of the voters last March. The board reopened discussions, but eventually stuck with its ruling.

Natick’s sports teams are now the Red and Blue, a nickname that predated the Redmen.

It’s unclear whether the voters who turned out in favor of the Redmen nickname will go to the polls next month, when the issues on the ballot are not as controversial. In last year’s election, which included a proposal to raise property taxes, 6,085 people voted to reconsider the nickname issue, while 3,291 voted against it. A total of just under 4,000 voters turned out for the town election in 2007.

Some town officials say that if Natick Forever works toward its goal of getting people active in government, everyone benefits.

“Really having different views from different groups in town is healthy for us, and Natick Forever brings yet another perspective to the table for everyone to view and understand,” said Stephen Meyler, chairman of the School Committee.

But some in town worry that the new political action committee will prolong divisions between old and new residents that surfaced during the Redmen debate last year.

“In these challenging times, it’s especially important that we come together as a community and not be divisive and not think in terms of `we’ and `they’ and `old’ and `new’ Natick,” said Dennis Barr, one of the organizers opposing the Redmen name.

While he sees healthy, respectful debate as vital to Natick’s diversity, Barr said, he wonders about some of the language on Natick Forever’s website. The group’s mission statement says it wants to “focus on supporting like-minded, honorable Natick residents in their attempts to win public office positions within Natick’s town governance system; and in the process to restore Natick to its traditional roots.”

“I think the values of honesty and respect – I don’t know who wouldn’t share them, so what do they mean?” said Barr.

Brown insists that the mission statement is not an effort to keep the “us versus them” debate alive, but instead highlights the need for politicians who prize fiscal responsibility and open and thorough decision-making processes. He also wants to ensure that all voices are heard in town – newer residents as well as longtime residents such as himself.

Brown’s plans for the organization are extensive. He and Natick Forever’s six other executive board members hope to send at least one representative to all meetings by town boards, something they’ve already started to do. Via telephone calls and e-mails, members will keep up-to-date on the latest governmental activities, and contact officials to get more information or share the group’s concerns.

“If we need something, tell us where the money is coming from,” said Brown. “That’s what this is all about, to see what the government is doing.”

Perhaps the most compelling development is Natick Forever’s active role in the March 31 town election.

Last week’s 90-minute debate between candidates Joshua Ostroff and Tony Lista was attended by about 100 residents. It featured questions from Brown, an exchange of questions between the candidates, time for rebuttals, and a segment where the audience could ask questions.

Brown’s moderating debut had a few missteps, like forgetting to read one of the candidate’s questions, but his commitment to the debate, with its carefully thought-out rules and emphasis on fairness, was clear.

The only whiff of days past came when Brown asked Ostroff and Lista how they’d vote on the Redmen issue if given the deciding vote.

Lista said he’d bring back the Redmen while Ostroff said he agreed with the School Committee’s decision.

Toward the end, as Ostroff and Lista articulated their views on split-tax rates, trash pickup, and personnel issues, Brown appeared more at ease in his new role.

“Mr. Ostroff, would you like to rebut yourself?” Brown quipped at one point, earning a hearty laugh from the audience.

On Feb. 24, Natick Forever is sponsoring a debate among School Committee candidates Karen Adelman Foster, David Margil, Nanci Farquharson, and Amy Mistrot, with three seats on the ballot. After each forum, Natick Forever has said, it will announce its endorsements and provide help to finance the candidates’ campaigns.

The candidates say they’re not doing anything different with Natick Forever on the scene this year.

Barr said it’s too early to assess the organization’s influence. He is skeptical that the large number of voters who favored the Redmen nickname will follow Natick Forever’s every endorsement. “It’s not like there’s a lockstep party line that is following behind them,” he said.

But he added that if Natick Forever can stay on the path espoused by Brown, based on mutual respect and healthy debate instead of the mudslinging and negativity that the Redmen issue at times devolved into, then things should be OK.

“I found Jimmy to be very reasonable … someone who really deeply cares about Natick,” said Barr.

Brown said he frequently stays up until 2 a.m. writing letters to the editor or working on the group in some way. He e-mails and makes calls to least 25 people per day, often responding to inquiries from Natick residents he’s never met but who are interested in the group’s activities.

And though he said that Redmen issue “will never die” and that “6,085 people are watching us,” he believes what’s done is done.

“The important issue is that Natick has to get together,” Brown said. “We’re truly for the good of Natick.”

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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