Politics in the People's Academy

If a business or an average member of the public had wanted to open the doors of the Northampton Academy of Music for a free public screening of Obama's inauguration, it's unlikely they would have ever have gotten the idea beyond the pipe dream stage.

It costs a lot to heat a theater on a January day, and even the most technically proficient among us probably couldn't have managed the live video feed by themselves. Finding collaborators would have been hard because it's unlikely the Academy's directors would have allowed any business or individual to sponsor such an event. It would have likely been argued (correctly) that allowing a private interest to use the inauguration as a self-promotion tool would be crass and disrespectful, especially if that business had a clear political agenda.

Luckily for the 800 people who were able to sit in the dark of the Academy on Jan. 20 and savor the historic moment of the first African-American being sworn into office, it was Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins who had the idea first.

"I thought people would like to see it as a group and be part of the community," she told a Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter on Jan 7. "It's a really great use of the Academy as the community's theater," she elaborated to Bill Dwight on his Jan. 14 show.

In 1892 Edward H. R. Lyman bequeathed the theater to the people of Northampton in a deed that outlined how his donated building should be used and managed. Along with Mr. Lyman himself, it mandated that the board of directors include both the city's mayor and Smith College's president. The other directors, including the one to replace Lyman after his death, were to be elected by the board. So when Higgins had her bright idea, she was able to pick up the phone and clear it with her fellow committee members pronto. "I was really happy the Academy was so excited about it," she said in a Jan. 3 Gazette story that did not otherwise mention her position on that board.

She must have been equally excited when she found out that the city's administration wouldn't mind keeping the building heated and lit during the event, and that there wouldn't be any scheduling conflicts with the event's keynote speaker.

WGBY, which has a partnership with and offices in the Academy, was providing the live video feed. In promoting the broadcast of the inauguration on its website, WGBY posted a picture of Obama and next to it the announcement that "Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins will preside." Massforchange.org, a grassroots organization that had campaigned for Obama, reported on its site that the mayor would "offer opening remarks" at the screening.

While some tickets would be available at the Academy on the day of the event, the bulk could only be obtained by visiting the Chamber of Commerce or the mayor's office.

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As far-reaching as Higgins' public relations efforts were, a good deal of the event promotion came after Monday, Jan. 5, the day the tickets for the event became available. ("They were gone within four or five hours. It was just a phenomenon to see them all fly out," the mayor said in the Dwight interview.) Two days later, Advocate blogger Daryl LeFleur questioned whether the use of the theater for such an event didn't contradict the agreement the city had made with Mr. Lyman for the building's use.

He quoted the same deed that gave the mayor a degree of authority over the Academy: "First, said granted premises shall be devoted and used solely and exclusively for the delivery of lectures, the production of concerts and operas and the impressions and delineation of the drama of the better character; and such other kindred subjects as shall be approved by the unanimous vote of the Committee or board of management hereinafter named; but said premises shall never be used for political meetings or rallies or for the distinctive presentation of party politics."

The document concludes: "In the event of the breach of any of the foregoing conditions, said granted premises shall at once without entry revert and revest in the grantor or his heirs and assigns." On February 6th, 1893, Northampton's Board of Aldermen recognized the generosity of their benefactor, and in a responding document promised "the uses of this Academy, as designated by the donor, are for purposes for which the City may lawfully accept and hold this property."

City Councilor David Narkewicz posted a comment to LaFleur's Northampton Redoubt blog: "I don't consider the administration of the Presidential oath of office to be a political or partisan event. It's required by Article II of our Constitution and is one of the few non-political moments in American civic life." The mayor dodged the question similarly when asked about LaFleur's accusation on Dwight's show: "…This is a bigger event than any kind of petty partisan city stuff. This is a big event for the country and for the world. I think it's great we're going to celebrate it along with the rest of the world."

The argument that the induction of a new political leader is not a political event is absurd, particularly coming from two career politicians. And, as LaFleur argued, it misses the point.

Even if the event was her idea, there was no need for the mayor to be in any way associated with it, much less promote it, distribute the tickets or preside over it. Instead, she has worked hard to have her name and Obama's married in local press on the inauguration, even after the tickets were all snapped up. If offering the community a chance to see the event in their Academy was her true intent, she might have held a raffle or had all the tickets distributed through the Academy's box office. Perhaps she and the city councilors might have had to compete for them alongside the voters. Instead, she treated the tickets as hers first and the public's second.

News of the free tickets first hit Northampton's Gazette on Saturday, Jan. 3, when it was announced that all 800 tickets would be distributed first thing the following Monday morning (Jan. 5), two days later, first come, first served. A report on CBS3springfield.com the Friday before, though, stated that at least a hundred tickets had already been given away prior to the public release. Further, the mayor also said some tickets would be held back, possibly for local students. One audience member I spoke to reported that he'd gotten "lucky" and a friend at the Academy's box office gave him a few for himself and his friends before the public got hold of them. (Only approximately 40 were available at the theater the day of the event.) A week after the tickets were given away (Jan. 12), the mayor's office released a newsletter entitled "Email Update January 20009" [sic] that said the tickets were available "beginning this morning."

Most publications carried the mayor's request to bring to the theater a donation to the Northampton Survival Center in lieu of a ticket price. A report on ABC40tv.com on the day of the event pointed out that tickets had been set aside for the Center for New Americans so that some recent immigrants could enjoy the screening.

As deserving as these institutions are of attention and tickets, if the Academy is a public institution and the event was not a political one, then these were not the mayor's gifts to bestow. On the radio she justified herself, saying, "I'm the elected leader of the city. I'm inviting people to a city-owned theater."

But her election as mayor only gives her a voice on the Academy's board, not ownership of the building, nor the right to invite whom she pleases to events that serve her political interests. As an elected leader, the mayor becomes a public servant, and as such it should be her duty to protect the city's public spaces from being used for private gain or political advantage.

Even in the less than 200 hours since President Obama has taken office, the winds of change have risen to hurricane strength, showing this new federal leader to be true to his word in wanting a transparent government that puts the interests of the people first. After eight years of a presidency that defies the Constitution as out of date, here's a leader that respects the laws that gave him power and draws strength from the traditions behind them.

If Northampton hopes to be included in this new era of responsibility, the Academy's inaugural event suggests the city also needs someone new behind the helm. Contenders for that position during this year's election, please take note: the race has started and the incumbent has already shown she's not above using her office to her advantage, legally or not.

Author: Mark Roessler

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