Dozens of people gather Wednesday at the Hart School District governing board to either support of condemn board member Joe Messina. Dan Watson / The Signal.

Messina draws crowd, addresses controversy at Hart District meeting

A few dozen local residents and activists attended the William S. Hart Union High School District governing board meeting Wednesday night in order to either support or condemn board member Joe Messina.

While those in support of Messina vouched for his character, instead turning the conversation back on those present to demonstrate against him, the opponents of Joe Messina said his alleged role in the resignation of former Rep. Katie Hill should result in him stepping down from his elected office.

The protesters, largely organized by Saugus Union School District board member David Barlavi, said their presence at the meeting was due to the events leading up to Hill’s resignation.

Hill resigned after a series of nude photos of her were shared online, as well as allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with campaign and congressional staff members. A House Ethics Committee investigation was opened into the allegations, but no outcome of the investigation was announced after Hill resigned from Congress effective Nov. 1.

Hill acknowledged having a relationship with a former member of her campaign staff, but has denied allegations of an intimate relationship with a congressional staff member.

Barlavi, along with other protesters present, contended Messina received the pictures, and instead of handing them over to law enforcement, gave the pictures to other Republicans who used them against Hill.

Messina denied these allegations both online before the meeting and during a statement from the dais in the meeting. His supporters echoed those sentiments.

“I’m grateful for those who came out to express their views, concerns and support,” Messina said during the meeting. “Though not directly a school board issue, I will say I never did any of those accusations Mr. Barlavi tried to sell tonight. My focus is on helping to provide and make sure our students have everything they need to succeed.”

Messina did not publish the nude photos, but discussed them on his syndicated radio talk show, “The Real Side.”

Victoria Redstall was one of the first speakers on behalf of Messina, but she would not be the last to take the podium. She and the following speaker, Sonja Schmidt, instead of going after Messina, attempted to turn the conversation back on those who showed up to demonstrate.

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” said Stall. “Go after the woman that is trying to represent this district in the worst way possible.”

“It’s a total sham and a witch hunt,” Schmidt added. “Anybody who doesn’t know what’s going on, find out what’s going on and find out about the character and credibility of the people that are doing this to him.”

Patti Sulpizio, a protester, said Messina’s alleged handling of the photos, by not taking them to law enforcement, but instead using them for political ammunition, should disqualify him from being a board member. The school board seat is a nonpartisan office.

The allegations against Messina, “which includes but should not be limited to receiving revenge porn material, a crime that he did not report … have brought shame and disgrace upon our community, and this school district in particular,” said Sulpizio.

After speaking at the meeting, Barlavi said his request for Messina to either work with law enforcement or resign stemmed from his belief that a school board member should be a good example to students and Messina’s alleged behavior was not.

“It’s not entirely about Joe, but he is on our school board and we should not have someone on our school board that teaches bullying to our boys against girls,” said Barlavi. “But we need to educate our community, we need to make sure that Katie Hill’s resignation is seen as the lesson it needs to be: that bullying is wrong, taunting women is wrong.”

Barlavi, who was the focus of protests earlier this year at school board meetings for raising a fist during the pledge of allegiance, acknowledged that the counter-protesters had referenced it during their speeches, but said he had kept the promise he made to no longer do it following a series of contentious meetings.

“I think in my meeting the protesters wanted to limit rights, but here, I wanted to protect peoples’ rights, and protect women from abuse,” Barlavi said.

The board did not publicly state whether any action would be taken against Messina, but board member Steve Sturgeon did use his board member reporting comments to voice his support for his colleague.

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