The selectboard has chosen a facilitator to lead what’s expected to be a contentious debate over possible changes to the town’s firearms ordinance.
Members interviewed three finalists before choosing Jennifer Knauer, a Jericho resident who runs her own facilitation and conflict management firm. With a $10,000 budget, she’s now expected to lead a process to draw input from those in favor of heightened restrictions and those ardently against them.
Knauer can base some of her efforts on a report then-Essex Police Chief Brad LaRose shared nearly a year ago, suggesting a phased-in approach that considers qualifying language instead of an all-out ban on discharging firearms.
Chairman Max Levy said he hoped the facilitator’s recommendation would reflect what the majority wants. But Knauer said if that remains the goal, she’s “probably not your gal.”
That’s because managing conversations like these in a balanced way, while still interpreting the content, is difficult and not the role of a facilitator, she said.
“My role is in bringing people to the table to have a conversation about it and making sure people have a space to do that work with each other,” she said.
Knauer circled back to this main question multiple times during her interview: What’s the selectboard’s objective?
For example, do members expect the process to function like a negotiation, where people can exchange ideas and attempt a compromise? Or, like when she facilitated a discussion in Newport about Walmart coming to town, is it an attempt to hear from those who the change will impact the most, while understanding that change itself is inevitable?
A clear objective will help determine who Knauer needs to seek input from and how those sessions function. Without an answer, she said, it’s hard to determine the best approach.
In an email Tuesday morning, Levy said the selectboard expects Knauer to convene public forums and “use other methods” to solicit input, alluding to an ongoing concern that some in favor of heightened restrictions have felt intimidated at previous meetings.
Levy said Knauer will help the board make an “informed decision” with a committee “of some type” to assist in interpreting the data.
At this point, it’s unclear when that will occur. The advertisement for the position said the town expected the process to take a month, with a final report due in the following weeks. But Levy said the board will have a better idea of the timeline once Knauer begins her work.
Knauer, meanwhile, sees her role as keeping the conversation on track and maintaining a specific focus — the ordinance — to avoid a broader, general debate over firearms. That may be easier said than done, given the tensions that flare anytime the ordinance has come under scrutiny in the past.
“I’m not sure that any tool is going to prevent that from coming into the conversation,” Knauer said. “It’s trying to figure out how to work with it in a way that’s truly compassionate.”
Selectwoman Irene Wrenner appreciated hearing Knauer plans to focus on specifics, since Wrenner reported hearing concerns that any changes would be “the first of many” focused on curbing gun freedoms in town.
For Knauer, those “legitimate concerns” lead to more questions: “What assurances does someone have that it’s not a slippery slope? What kinds of language or what sort of protections or what unintended consequences are they worried about, that such an ordinance might suggest?”
Other questions focused on Knauer’s ability to remain objective during the discussions, and Wrenner relayed a question from a resident who wanted to know whether the candidates were gun-owners or members of the National Rifle Association (she said she’s neither).
Sensing a trend, Knauer said that’s exactly the reason she doesn’t want to be the final arbitrator on the community’s wishes, especially since she’s not a resident and doesn’t know much about firearms.
“We are not neutral beings,” she said. “We are clearly biased people, and it’s working with those biases in a way that makes sense and it doesn’t get in the way with balanced participation.”