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Appointed town government member accuses teens of ‘Messiah complex’ over animal welfare proposals

The front of Brookline Town Hall, a stone building.
Brookline Town Hall. Photo by Clare Ong
October 10, 2023

Two Town Meeting proposals related to animal welfare, brought forward by high school students, have caused controversy as an appointed member of town government accused the students of wasting the town’s time, being manipulated by activists and having a “Messiah complex.”

The tone of the exchange led one of the students to express concern about a chilling effect on young people’s interest in getting involved in local politics.

Sponsors say the proposals are aimed at broader questions of animal rights and a possible future need for regulation in Brookline. One, Warrant Article 14, would ban the sale of most animals from pet shops in Brookline. The other, Warrant Article 15, would prevent the use of a number of animals such as elephants, monkeys and zebras from being used in traveling acts performing in town.

The students, along with co-sponsor Shira Fischer, a Town Meeting member, were presenting the proposal to a subcommittee of the Advisory Committee, a panel appointed by the town moderator to weigh in on legislative proposals before Town Meeting. Its recommendations often shape the language of warrant articles voted on at Town Meeting.

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Most of the recent subcommittee meeting consisted of a back and forth about specifics of the proposals, with members asking questions and expressing their opinions about their merits.

Ezra Kleinbaum, a 16-year-old Brookline High School junior who is one of the students leading the proposals, said that Warrant Article 14 is intended to prevent large scale commercial breeding facilities (sometimes known as “puppy mills”) from selling their animals in town. Both measures, he said, can help influence state legislation and other municipalities, even if they don’t directly apply to existing businesses in Brookline.

Several subcommittee members expressed skepticism. The proposals, they said, were flawed, overly broad or address issues that currently do not exist in Brookline since there are no pet shops or traveling acts.

Subcommittee member Paul Bernard, who was appointed to the Advisory Committee by Town Moderator Kate Poverman in July, took a different tack.

“You’re really chewing up a lot of the government’s time. And I think you guys need to reflect on that. And more broadly, it’s difficult to make a difference. I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm here from you high school kids, but I think you’re being played by a couple of activists,” Bernard told the students.

“Look at the literature. There’s such a thing called the Messiah complex that hits people in their teens through the mid-20s, where you think it’s very easy to be a Messiah, but it’s actually quite difficult to have an impact in the world. And you’ve got to work really hard and dig into issues, and, you know, there very infrequently are low-hanging type fruit things to get,” Bernard said.

“I just think it’s a travesty of the town system that you guys would think you can chew up our time to make these sorts of statements.”

Later in the meeting, Bernard again said he thinks the warrant articles constitute a “cynical manipulation of kids.”

After the meeting, Kleinbaum said in an interview that, even amid the sometimes -intense questioning, he was shocked, offended and “caught off guard” by the tone of Bernard’s comments.

Bernard declined to comment after the meeting.

“I think civic engagement is so important to any society, a functional thriving, democratic society. When people say things that are not criticisms of the policies at question, but are criticisms of the people who are bringing them, that discourages people from being civically engaged,” Kleinbaum said.

Brookline High School students have a history of being involved in town government. A warrant article passed last year to create a committee to study an affordable housing overlay district was led by students. During the pandemic, students and recent alumni led an effort to collect signatures on a petition to place creation of a charter commission on the municipal ballot.

When he was 14, Kleinbaum helped lead the successful passage of a previous proposal at Town Meeting that banned the retail sale of new animal furs in Brookline.

“I’ve been involved with the town government for a while now,” he said. “I’ve found my footing. But I hate to think what that might have done to someone who was newly getting involved.”

Kleinbaum said that the idea for the warrant article had come solely from him and fellow BHS juniors Hannah Szelenyi and Cleo Blanding. They brought it to Fischer and asked her to support it at Town Meeting with them.

“All residents in town are empowered to get involved and bring their knowledge and passion,” Fischer said. “Our job as elected representatives to government is to support that.”

Neil Gordon, another member of the subcommittee, defended the students during the meeting.

“I applaud the petitioners, and I applaud Shira for being their mentor,” Gordon said. “The magic of a small number of petitioners being able to put their item on the agenda for the town’s legislature is not a flaw of town government. It’s a feature.”

Moderator Kate Poverman declined to comment on the incident, but said that she expects Advisory Committee members to treat everyone that comes before the committees with respect and emphasizes that in conversations she has with them.