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Littleton, NH town manager resigns, in latest turn in debate over public art and censorship

Main Street in Littleton, NH, during a March 2023 snowstorm. Mara Hoplamazian photo / NHPR
Mara Hoplamazian
Main Street in Littleton, NH, during a March 2023 snowstorm. Mara Hoplamazian photo / NHPR

Dozens of Littleton residents gathered at Monday’s select board meeting, many hoping for an apology for anti-LGBTQ+ remarks made by one of its members and a resolution to the board’s handling of a larger debate over public art by and about LGBTQ+ people.

But the board issued no such statement. Instead, Town Manager Jim Gleason stepped down from his position, citing the pain he said he experienced during the controversy. Gleason said he has been subject to hateful remarks about his late son, who was gay.

“I've been here almost three years, and, yes, I'm an outsider when I came and still the guy from Florida and whatever,” Gleason said in an interview. “This is a beautiful community. There are some great people in this community that I've got to work with.”

Gleason’s departure is the latest turn in a months-long controversy centered on questions of what kind of public art is appropriate in this North Country town. It began with a debate over public murals that some, including select board member Carrie Gendreau, claimed were pushing a "demonic" pro-LGBTQ+ message, something she called "an abomination." That led to a further debate over bans of public art, and disrupted the town’s long standing relationship with a local theater company, Theatre UP, that was staging a production of “La Cage aux Folles."

Gleason hopes that, with his departure, the board and community will be able to move forward.

At the meeting, select board member Roger Emerson said the board was never planning to ban public art. Emerson and Gendreau suggested the idea could have come from Theatre UP leaders and possibly Gleason.

But town officials have also said voters could be asked to weigh in on new art rules in the future.

Gleason feels a review of art still places the town in a predicament.

“I will say nowhere in any email from the Board of Selectmen or in public comment did they ever use the word ‘ban,’ ” Gleason said. “But when someone says, ‘we need to do something to ensure that this art on these private buildings doesn't make it onto public property’ – that to me is a ban. Because the board has two choices: They cannot regulate content, so they either allow it or they don't.”

Kerri Harrington, co-chair of North Country Pride, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ people in the area, said it's been a difficult chapter for Littleton and that Monday’s meeting was a bit of a shock to not receive an apology. The meeting also closed with a reading by Gendreau, in which Harrington said people walked out on feeling upset by its contents.

“People were angry and sad, and it's been really rough, it's not been feeling great around here,” Herrington said. “Now we're in a predicament because we're not going to have a town manager.”

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Olivia joins us from WLVR/Lehigh Valley Public Media, where she covered the Easton area in eastern Pennsylvania. She has also reported for WUWM in Milwaukee and WBEZ in Chicago.