During his first full week on the job, new Hinesburg town manager Todd Odit had a meeting with Al Barber, the town’s fire chief, to discuss a controversial meme Barber shared on his Facebook page.
At that meeting, the fire chief and the town manager agreed Barber would retire and the town would begin to look for a full-time paid fire chief, Odit said in an email.
The next day Barber informed Odit he did not want to retire, the town manager said.
The controversy came to a head last month when town officials were sent an email from Hinesburg resident Cathy Ryan that included the meme Barber shared — a picture of two men eating a banana simultaneously which read, “How men who want to ban guns eat bananas.”
Ryan’s email was acquired through a public records request. In her email to the selectboard, she wrote: “I thought you all should know what fire chief Al Barber thinks about guns and gays.”
Barber said he hadn’t read the meme and just hit “share.”
When informed about the meme by then-interim town manager Joy Dubin Grossman, Barber said he didn’t remember it and went through his Facebook account to find it.
When he found the meme, the fire chief said, he closed his Facebook account.
Many, including Barber himself, said the meme was homophobic.
A subsequent open records request revealed this was not an isolated incident —at least eight memes posted reflect hot-topic issues, including racial equity to the objectification of women.
Individuals and groups, including the Hinesburg Racial Equity Group, have said this behavior has broken the trust of some people in the community, who fear whether rescue services will will be provided equitably to emergencies at homes of marginalized citizens.
When reached by phone Tuesday, before any questions were asked, Barber said, “I really have nothing to say, thank you.” And hung up.
‘Won’t be tolerated’
Odit said in his meeting with Barber he told the fire chief that while he was town manager “the types of things that he posted are not acceptable, won’t be tolerated.”
The town manager said he told Barber he wasn’t going to tolerate hate in any town department and the town is going to be working for diversity and inclusion.
Asked for his response to the posting of a homophobic meme in Hinesburg by a public official, Gov. Phil Scott said during his regular press conference last Friday he did not condone that kind of action — and recommended that people in public service stay off social media.
Scott asked that particularly people in public service “treat everyone with respect and dignity and be fair and just in everything you promote, everything that you do and everything you practice.”
The governor deferred the development of an ethics code for social media use by public officials or town employees is the responsibility of local municipalities.
So far, Hinesburg has not implemented a social media policy, but town leaders say they’re working on it.
On Wednesday morning Odit said he had a policy, in draft form, saved on his computer.
“I’m staring at it right now,” he said.
After Barber met with the selectboard in executive session, he issued a public apology. Also after that meeting selectboard chair Phil Pouech said the board’s meeting with Barber was a good first step on the creation of that policy for town employees and officials.
The selectboard was scheduled to meet Wednesday, May 5, after press time, to talk about next steps for diversity and inclusion.