FLEMINGTON, NJ - The bitter divide among citizens either angry at the comments made by Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver on her personal Facebook page or confused by the vitriol heaped at her in the recent days was evident at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“Why do you think you should be held to a different standard?” asked citizen Jeanne Branan angrily during the council meeting Tuesday.
She was upset about the comments Mayor Betsy Driver had made on Facebook when, using profanity, she said she would “unfriend” people who supported President Donald Trump and linked to an NPR article regarding statements against same-sex marriage from Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
These were comments that Branan and others said they believe would have gotten any other borough employee fired, comments that had GOP leaders calling for an apology and Driver’s resignation.
“I’m still waiting for an answer,” said Branan to Driver’s silence during the meeting.
"I’ve made a statement, it was published on TAPinto and on my Facebook page," Driver finally replied.
“I hope you can sleep at night,” Branan retorted, still angry and unsatisfied.
The vitriol that’s playing out in Flemington and across social media, spurred in part by the vitriol playing out in national politics, has divided an otherwise peaceful and neighborly borough.
Driver’s hostile Facebook comments – in which she took aim at the president and his supporters – was fueled by the comments of the two Supreme Court Justices who questioned the validity of same-sex marriages, putting Driver’s own union at risk.
The question now is how does the community heal?
‘In the democratic culture, you make a case and try to sway others to your cause, there are winners and there are losers,” said William Fitzgerald, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University in Camden, and an expert in rhetorical studies.
And that leads to escalation.
“There’s another, more practical approach, where you attempt to find common ground rather than polarizing,” Fitzgerald said. “Look to where you can agree. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, to say ‘I understand you’re upset,’ instead of putting a spin on it and trying to win.”
Flemington’s public comment format leaves little room for that kind of dialogue. Each participant is given three minutes to state his or her case and council members are not supposed to interject.
It may be something that needs to change, according to Flemington Councilman Jeremy Long.
“I am of the thinking ‘Can we please be constructive and productive and polite?’” he said. “If you’re truly listening to the things other people are saying, good things are going to happen.”
When the Black Lives Matter movement caught national attention, Long and fellow councilwoman Jessica Hand formed a citizens’ committee to work with the borough police department to foster better community relations and suggest any reforms.
“The police group is a perfect example,” Long said. “People are listening to each other. How do you bring that practice to a council meeting? We should be able to have that conversation.”
“It’s been so positive, I’ve learned a lot about different perspectives,” she said about the citizens police group.
Long and Hand said they would be discussing amongst themselves and their fellow council members ideas for a public forum to introduce active listening skills – where speakers repeat what’s been said by the prior speaker, checking to see that they’ve got it correct, before moving on with their rebuttal – as a way to bridge the divide.
“I’m certainly open to discussing that at a council meeting,” said councilman Chris Runion, who said he is also frustrated by the discord.
A public forum is a step in the right direction, said Fitzgerald, as it makes people come face-to-face.
“It means we’re willing to put our name and face to the argument we’re making instead of hiding behind screens and aliases,” he said.
Hand said the communication is key.
“Getting people to listen to people’s stories, hearing what others are going through, I’m all for it,” she said. “There is so much divisiveness. I am all for getting this community to heal.”