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Farewell to the Mutis

October 1, 2013

20 years ago today, on October 1, 1993, a federal judge released the MWRA from its obligation to put a sludge dump in Walpole, effectively ending a six-year fight.

When the Mass. Water Resources Authority and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first proposed trucking tons of sludge from Boston Harbor to South Walpole in 1987, officials in those two agencies thought they had a good shot at pressing local residents to accept the plan. Although the MWRA expected some opposition, they anticipated that citizens would eventually roll over and be outmatched by the two powerful government bureaucracies.

That was, of course, until those officials met Joanne Muti and her army of irate Walpole residents.

With only a small budget but a lot of passion, Muti and the members of the Walpole Citizen Action Committee fought in the trenches for six long years against the sludge landfill plan. Their crusade emerged victorious, in October 1993, when a federal judge finally released the MWRA from their federal obligation to put sludge in Walpole, and ruled that the sludge should be shipped to Utah instead.

“Without a fax machine, without a copier, [Muti] has waged war against the MWRA and the US Environmental Protection Agency while raising her son, now 3,” wrote Boston Globe reporter Michael Grunwald, on Oct. 10, 1993, a few days after the court case was handed down.

“A political novice when the group formed in August 1987, she has become an expert in water quality, sewer technologies, landfill management and the fertilizer industry, not to mention public relations and political maneuvering,” Grunwald wrote. “For her efforts, she has seen herself branded a political opportunist, a hysterical housewife, a mental midget, a NIMBY extraordinaire.”

Muti and her group of residents didn’t stop with sludge. They also fought various other proposals over the years for a propane farm, a regional trash transfer facility, a power plant, and, most recently, a casino. Each proposal, from one bad developer after another, was ultimately abandoned in the face of strong grassroots opposition from town residents, with Muti always and consistently among those steadfastly leading the charge.

During her long political career in Walpole, Muti served as a Town Meeting Representative, Board of Health member, Selectman, and Finance Committee member. In between, she was also an expert political adviser and organizer, who was frequently called upon by town and legislative political candidates to assist their campaigns at the local level.

But now, after 28 years of living in Walpole, and experiencing one long political fight after another, Joanne and her husband Kevin, himself a former longtime Sewer and Water Commissioner, announced recently that they will move out of Walpole before the end of the year. They plan to move to a condo at Marina Bay in Quincy, where they look forward to having less home maintenance and yard work. Above all, they also anticipate spending less time fighting bad businesses.

The Mutis’ departure is significant for Walpole, not only because of the void they will leave in political organizing but also because they serve as extraordinary models of selfless public service that other public officials ought to look up to. With so many negative headlines about politicians abusing their power, the Mutis served their community not to boost their egos or pad their resumes but because they were driven by a worthwhile cause. They wanted to preserve Walpole’s quality of life, and made many sacrifices to attempt to achieve that.

It’s not easy to say goodbye, especially to two people who have contributed so much to their community. Walpole will surely face future battles against bad developers, but will apparently have to do it without the know-how and vigor of Joanne Muti.

If there is a lesson for residents from Joanne’s service to the community, it is that an active group of citizens with a small budget, not politicians themselves, is often the most effective way to protect Walpole from outside threats. Joanne didn’t flinch in the face of “bad” development – neither should we.

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