The elected representatives of the citizens of Chestertown have voted 4-0 to adopt the statement “Black Lives Matter” as town policy. The Council also voted to memorialize that message in two murals: “Black Lives Matter” on High Street and “I Can’t Breathe” on College Avenue.
The on-going controversy was always about High Street, never College Avenue – reasons stated mostly about not imposing a message on High Street property owners and protecting the charm of the historic district.
At the start of the Mayor and Council Meeting the outcome was undecided. Councilman Tom Herz was privately stating he would vote against. Then came the shocker: after driving the wedge in the middle of the ongoing debate for weeks, Herz announced his recusal and publicly disclosed that he had been renting space for some time from Philip W. Hoon, the attorney who represents the unnamed “High Street property” owners who had objected to the mural initially.
The Kent Pilot reported in July that Herz was a tenant of Hoon. Hoon is a respected attorney in our community and helps to support the political and legal processes. As a long-time resident, Herz should have recognized immediately the perception of conflict and stayed clear – one of the many prices of elected office.
The meeting continued most of the night as citizen after citizen called for an affirmative vote. Mayor Chris Cerino and First Ward Councilman David Foster defended their “No” positions hard. They ignored the advice of Town Attorney R. Stewart Barroll on how to get to “Yes.”
The Council heard effective advocacy from citizens backed up by the appearance of nationally-respected constitutional attorney and local resident Jim Astrachan. The Cerino-Foster argument that the mural debate had divided the community on partisan and racial lines fell apart as speakers said time and again that these views were no different than the white paternalism that controlled post-World War II Chestertown and ushered in new, but segregated communities to address inferior housing conditions for African Americans. Separate but equal in the age of segregation.
The mural is another creative force that speaks to the energy and ingenuity of individuals committed to getting us to a non-racial world. It speaks volumes about the 100 Days of Action in Kent County. We have seen regular peaceful public protests calling for a public commitment from our elected leaders for racial justice, police reform and a recognition of “Black Lives Matter.” What does that mean? To recognize and practice public policy that acknowledges that the old school, “white male” mindset must be replaced with more diverse voices.
The BLM mural advocacy effort is led by a diverse coalition of women: Wanda Boyer, Arlene Lee, and Maria Wood. The support has been broad across the entire community leading up to last night’s council meeting. Nearly 1,000 residents have signed a petition in favor. None of the “20 to 25” persons whom the Mayor claimed emailed him in opposition showed up to go on record. The speakers kept coming. So many that with speakers still waiting, the Mayor and Councilman Foster changed their position.
The change came after the council engaged in their first collective legal consultation on this important policy issue – live on Zoom. Jim Astrachan, whose discussion on this topic can be found in the Kent Pilot, joined the meeting to provide constitutional legal context. He noted, for example, that the Supreme Court most recently upheld government-endorsed speech installed by the contributions of private citizens in the “Bladensburg Cross” decision.
With the benefit of a collective understanding of the law and an opportunity to create a compromise designed to strengthen the process, Cerino and Foster joined with Tolliver and Elfand. The council voted to approve 4-0.
In addition to the historic recognition, there are three additional takeaways from Monday.
First, the Mayor & Council must actively deploy its attorney R. Stewart Barroll. Politicians practicing law without a license is contrary to the American form of government. We are a nation of laws and lawyers are trained, examined and licensed to advise on law and to ensure proper compliance with the law, such as compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
Second, Councilman Herz needs to either decamp from Mr. Hoon’s office or resign from the Council. It is disturbing that Herz waited until the night of the vote to recuse himself. He spent weeks trying to back channel a compromise. He should have never injected himself so aggressively when he knew of his conflict. It speaks volumes of the ethical challenges that will likely follow him.
Third, where is Kent & Queen Anne’s Indivisible? Maybe they should rename themselves Kent Invisible. This progressive group provided Herz with tremendous election campaign support in 2019 that led to the ouster of an experienced, respected former Councilperson Linda Kuiper. Who did Kent Invisible deliver? Tom Herz, who wheeled around town and promised much to local stakeholders. As one leading Black pastor remarked, “He ate my black eyed peas and collard greens promising he’d support racial justice only to show his true colors.”
Now the talking is done and the hard part starts: getting the murals on the ground. Based on the volume of support, it will be a community effort that will be accomplished with COVID-19 safety measures in mind.