HAMPDEN, Maine — Hampden Town Councilor William Shakespeare has been called a communist, a shameful disgrace and had his manhood questioned.
Such messages of disapproval pop up in Shakespeare’s online inbox with alarming frequency these days and they come from all over the country.
Why all the hostility?
Shakespeare and Thomas Brann, a fellow veteran councilor, are the two rebels who have refused to stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of Town Council meetings.
Their decision mostly provided for angry gossip around town until someone recorded one of the meetings and posted it on YouTube. Then the whole country got into it.
The insults don’t bother Shakespeare much, but the allegations that he is unpatriotic do.
Shakespeare said he served 30 years in the military, both on active duty and in the Army Reserves. He comes from a military background and his son is a West Point graduate who served in Iraq.
“I don’t think I have to prove my patriotism to anyone and neither does Tom, who is a Vietnam veteran,” Shakespeare said over coffee this week.
Brann figures he’s getting the same sort of threats, but he’s not reading them.
“I don’t care one single bit,” said the retired University of Maine forestry professor, who alleges that the decision to recite the pledge before meetings was made illegally and was a violation of Robert’s Rules of Order.
Both men recite the pledge regularly and without hesitation at athletic games or at school events, they said.
Shakespeare sees the issue as a matter of control and Brann sees it as violation of procedure.
After having coffee with the pair this week, it became clear that their act of dissension has nothing to do with the flag, the country or patriotism and absolutely everything to do with deep-rooted and cantankerous small-town politics.
And while their very public act has been the talk of the town this week, Hampden’s real problem is much more serious and much more embarrassing than this pair’s bit of business.
The anger and divisiveness in Hampden goes back several years and seems rooted in the town’s attempt to rewrite its comprehensive plan, which caused some residents to form a citizens group called HALO, the Hampden Association of Landowners.
It’s hard to cast blame in any one direction as councilors, mayors and managers have come and gone during the madness … and yet it continues.
In a newsroom full of veteran reporters and editors who have covered municipal governments for decades, few remember a town so mired in anger, distrust and disrespect.
That’s saying something.
At one meeting this month, speaking to yet another mishandled mess, Town Manager Susan Lessard appeared almost on the verge of tears saying the situation in the town was “craziness” and nearly unmanageable.
At the same meeting Mayor Carol Duprey’s husband, Brian Duprey, who is also the town’s legislative representative, took to the microphone and said Brann and Shakespeare came across as a couple of “sore losers.”
Things like that go a long way toward helping the situation.
Part of the idea of having a good comprehensive plan is to have a template that can be used to control, yet encourage, economic development.
Perhaps Hampden doesn’t need one after all. The bad behavior and unconstrained foolishness occurring at the council meetings may be enough to control any economic development possibilities.
The Pledge of Allegiance refers to the indivisibility of our country. Next time members stand to recite the pledge, perhaps the council should hear those words and see if there is a message in there for them.
You can reach Renee Ordway at firstname.lastname@example.org.