Women answer town government’s call to serve in Shutesbury – The Recorder

Posted: July 4, 2020 at 3:49 pm

Editors Note: This story was written prior to Shutesburys annual town election on June 27. During the election, Rita Farrell beat out Jeffrey Lacy for the seat on the Selectboard vacated by Elaine Puleo, who is interviewed here. With Farrells election, Shutesbury has maintained its status as the only town in Franklin County to have an all-female Selectboard. Additionally, Town Clerk Susie Mosher has since been replaced by newly elected Grace Bannasch.

Certainly, 44-year-old Melissa Makepeace-ONeils blonde hair and brown eyes are hereditary, but she has another trait that she believes is influenced by genetics: an eagerness to volunteer and serve her town.

Both Makepeace-ONeils mother and grandmother served on the Shutesbury Council on Aging, a role shed later fill herself, continuing the three-generation chain. Her grandmother also worked in the cafeteria at the town elementary school, and her grandfather was police chief.

Elaine Puleo, 68 (who was replaced by Rita Farrell in this years election), and Janet April Stein, 67, share similar backgrounds in which volunteerism has seemed as natural as breathing. Thats what brought the three women together to serve Shutesbury as Franklin Countys only all-female Selectboard.

Women are no strangers to Franklin County Selectboards. In fact, their involvement in the role dates back to 1932, when Monroe voters became the first in the county to elect a woman, Inga Koksvik, to their towns Board of Selectmen.

As of the end of May, of Franklin Countys 24 municipalities with a three-member Selectboard (not including the city of Greenfield, which is run by its City Council and mayor, and Orange, which has a five-member Selectboard), nine of them had one female member on their Selectboard and three had two. However, 11 boards still consisted entirely of men. These figures may change following the ongoing local elections.

The increase of women in government has led many towns to officially change their governing bodys name from Board of Selectmen to the more gender neutral Selectboard in recent years.

Still, only one town has an entirely female Selectboard, which also happens to be supported by a female town administrator, Rebecca Torres, and a female administrative secretary, Linda Avis Scott. Puleo, who decided not to seek re-election on June 27 after eight years on the board, believes this is just the beginning of a trend.

More and more women are stepping up and running things locally, said Puleo, who considered it a natural progression to run for Selectboard after serving on the Finance Committee and School Committee. I hope thatll trickle up.

We need more women involved in running government, said Stein, a self-proclaimed feminist since the age of 10. It will happen. It is happening.

The movement can also be demonstrated at the state level, with Makepeace-ONeil, Puleo and Stein pointing to the election of Rep. Natalie Blais to the 1st Franklin District seat in 2018, replacing Rep. Steve Kulik. Likewise, the same year, Sen. Jo Comerford was elected to replace Sen. Stan Rosenberg in the Hampshire/Franklin/Worcester District.

On the local level, Shutesbury has become the right place to test out an all-female governance model, Makepeace-ONeil believes, because of its highly educated population of roughly 1,800 residents who seek to be involved in the towns inner workings. Puleo believes the large number of women involved in government may relate to Town Hall and the Shutesbury Elementary School being the only gathering places in town outside of the Shutesbury Athletic Club.

If youre going to be connected in this town, you dont go to Starbucks, Puleo said.

Prior to Farrells recent election, the Shutesbury Selectboard had consisted of Makepeace-ONeil, Puleo and Stein for the past two years. For some, joining the Selectboard was a very deliberate decision.

For me, the idea of being on an all-women Selectboard was the driving factor, Stein said, recounting how she had previously served on the Personnel Board and Finance Committee.

Like Makepeace-ONeil, volunteerism seems to be in Steins blood, with her father having served on the Hingham Advisory Committee and school committee, and her mother leading a Girl Scout Troop and lending a hand at the library. Additionally, both of Steins grandmothers were suffragettes, with her maternal grandmother also being the first woman to teach while pregnant in the state of New Hampshire.

It was rather serendipitous that Stein first got involved in government by joining the Finance Committee in the 1990s, after then-Finance Committee member Jonathan Klate called Steins house to see if her husband might be interested in joining. When Stein answered the phone instead, Klate unexpectedly found his newest member.

In a similar thread, Makepeace-ONeil hadnt necessarily bargained on joining the Selectboard back in 2016. But, given her familys lengthy history in town, she had name recognition going for her when a friend asked if she could vote for Makepeace-ONeil as a write-in candidate during a time when no one was running for a vacant Selectboard seat.

I said, If you can spell my name right, you can write me in, recalled Makepeace-ONeil, who had served on the Council on Aging and Memorial Day Committee. With 56 write-in votes, she earned the vacant seat.

When considering why an all-female board has fallen into place now, Stein believes that perhaps the wheels were set in motion after Torres was hired for town administrator 10 years ago, acting as a sort of magnet to other women considering running for office.

Maybe weve been mentoring each other or women-toring each other, she said.

These two hold us together, Puleo said of Torres and Avis Scott. We could not do this job with as much fun and as much camaraderie without them.

The camaraderie between the five women running Shutesburys Selectboard meetings was tangible during a joint meeting with the Finance Committee and Personnel Board earlier this year. The 12 officials sat in a circle rather than in rows, and when the meeting ended, they chatted about potholes on the drive ahead of them and what theyd focus on in retirement. An abundant supply of bite-sized brownies and carrot sticks peppered the meeting tables.

The snacks are strategic, the five women explained, as they grew accustomed to arriving to meetings directly from their jobs without stopping home for dinner. Finding a way to balance their time between work, caring for their families and serving the town is something the Selectboard members believe inhibits other women from getting involved in town government.

But in the past three years, thats where the Women of Positive Presence come in. Puleo explained the ad-hoc group of Shutesbury residents delivers a hot meal to the three mothers who serve on the School Committee on nights when they have meetings, ensuring that they dont have to worry about feeding their families as well as serving their community.

It helps keep the juggling down and lets them know their volunteerism is appreciated, Puleo said. Its stressful for moms to do it all.

The Women of Positive Presence has also played a key role in ensuring that women feel comfortable in local government, explained Susie Mosher (town clerk prior to the election of Grace Bannasch), who originally connected the group of over 20 women. Their goal was to increase the number of women involved in town government and to disseminate information about available seats, while also providing community support during meetings by filling the audience.

Attending meetings was really our very first effort, Mosher explained. Having an audience of residents creates a positive presence.

In the beginning, the group would use a calendar to ensure participants could attend each of the towns board meetings, but now its efforts focus more on recruiting. Additionally, Mosher, who was largely responsible for the Selectboards snacks, said even residents who dont want to attend meetings can get involved by providing food.

Being on an all-female board, Puleo said, changes the dynamic between members in a way that she believes is often for the better.

In the past, when weve had mixed gender boards, we used to have some contentious meetings, she recalled. Its kind of petered out since weve had all women in the room.

The board members certainly face similar issues, Puleo said, but their interactions dont feel as charged when they disagree. The key, she believes, lies in listening.

Women tend to listen longer to issues on all sides. I have found that in all of our interactions, when you give a problem to a man, they want to fix it immediately, she said. We tend to mull. We dont tend to solve problems quickly.

While quick action may seem beneficial, Puleo and Makepeace-ONeil believe taking the time to look at a problem from all sides works better.

Men are very solution-focused, Makepeace-ONeil agreed. Maybe thats where the two balance out well.

Another benefit of their relationship, the women agree, is simply acknowledging that they will not always share the same opinion.

We dont always agree, but theres a level of mutual respect thats really strong, Stein said. Were able to listen to each other and not be rigid.

When differences do arise, Makepeace-ONeil said the three women are able to put them aside to come to decisions that are best for the town.

When we walk into this room, were not wearing a liberal or conservative hat, or a Democratic or Republican hat, Puleo said. Were wearing a Shutesbury hat.

Reach Shelby Ashline at 413-772-0261, ext. 270 or sashline@recorder.com.

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Women answer town government's call to serve in Shutesbury - The Recorder

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