Bravo Chestertown: Town Turns Symbolic Corner

Wanda Boyer of Chestertown succeeds in bringing BLM murals to local streets

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.

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8 comments

  1. I think it does a disservice to not report that what Town Council actually approved was the language “Black Lives Matter – Chestertown Unites Against Racism” for both murals. While you display an image to that effect, nowhere does this appear in your report. (Logically, this should be mentioned in the second paragraph.) Call me a journalism curmudgeon.

    1. Sorry for the omission, but this factoid was mentioned in “Town Council Embraces “Black Lives Matter” Message In 4-0 Vote” that went out today. It was added at the suggestion of Mayor Chris Cerino to fend off angry sentiment from any potential opposition.

  2. I too was gobsmacked by Herz’s 11th hour-and-55-minute suggestion that he “may” have to recuse himself due to a perceived “conflict of interest” regarding his arrangement with Mr. Hoon… you mean to tell me he never felt the need prior to last night to address it?? Seemed like a cowardly ploy to get out of a monumental vote… Herz continues to underwhelm – I hope Ward 2 will nominate someone more capable next time around.

  3. That’s fair and appropiate Charles Taylor. Very proud and impressed with everyone for their diligence and courage to stay in the fight for what’s right; to be determined to do what’s right amidst pressures and disagreement. Foremost, getting through this chapter with civility. Now let’s not get comfortable and nod over one victory, but really be a town united against racism in every area of our lives. A first in my lifetime to see Chestertown work for something that is purposefully inclusive. Thank you Mayor & Council; I’m still holding out for the “Charm” of the historic district, yet still you’ve shown yourselves to be honorable, and I thank you. Social Action Commitee for Racial Justice take a bow!

  4. As someone who has lived four miles from Chestertown for 42 years, I have always been thankful that the town had maintained its historical character over 300 years, and served as a living history lesson. A mural of black lives matter on High Street is a desecration that is completely unnecessary, and does nothing to further the elimination of racism,only divides people.
    My first real friend when I came to Chestertown was a wonderful black woman, who told me stories of growing up in Betterton and coming to market in Chestertown in a horse and wagon. She married a man of lighter color, and said that the racism against darker blacks by those of lighter color was even worse than from the « white folks ».
    How sad to see that our beautiful historic town has finally succumbed to the scourge of liberal socialism. I pray this doesn’t lead to looting and burning….a Black Lives Matter activist in Chicago justified looting as fine, look at it as reparations.

  5. I was surprised to read the non sequitur criticism of Kent and Queen Anne’s Indivisible in the middle of an otherwise hopeful article. As a member of KQAI’s leadership team, I can only conclude that these comments are based on a superficial and impressionistic understanding of our group and its activities.

    KQAI is an advocacy group whose work focuses almost exclusively on ensuring the election of officials who share our progressive political and social values and on holding elected officials accountable. While we use our platform to encourage participation in activities and projects of civic organizations that share our values—and in fact, on several occasions, we did encourage our membership to support the BLM murals in both our email correspondence and on our Facebook page—we use the majority of our limited time and resources on projects directly related to this political advocacy.

    In terms of our main focus on political advocacy, KQAI did its due diligence with respect to Councilperson Tom Herz. As you note, our group endorsed and supported Herz, along with Councilperson Meghan Efland, in the 2019 town elections. When we learned that Councilperson Herz had changed his mind about the BLM mural projects last week, a project which we fully supported, the KQAI leadership reached out to him to set up a meeting. Over the weekend, we met with Councilperson Herz, at length, to seek an explanation for his reversal and to prevail upon him to reconsider his decision. We were not successful in doing so during that meeting, but we had scheduled a second meeting with Councilperson Herz on Monday before the council meeting in the hopes of moving the discussion forward, but the Councilperson cancelled that second meeting. We will continue to engage with Councilperson Herz on this issue as well as discuss his last-minute recusal on Monday night.

    We were present on the Zoom call and the livestream for the duration of the meeting, but chose not to speak in order to allow maximum participation from those more closely involved in the project (notably members of SACRJ) and from members of Chestertown’s Black community.

    It is my hope that based on this new information, the author of this piece will retract any unjustified and inaccurate comments about KQA Indivisible. However, if they choose not to do so, we encourage them to at least do their journalistic duty of researching subjects about which they choose to opine. Without good research, editorials published here in the Pilot will amount to nothing more than comments on somebody’s uncle’s Facebook page. We believe that the Pilot should hold itself to a higher standard.

    However, ultimately, I don’t want this conversation to overshadow what is really important: I applaud and fully support the work of the power team of Wanda Boyer, Arlene Lee, and Maria Wood along all with those who worked with them to move this project forward. I also applaud the mayor and Council Foster, Efland, and Tolliver for this important step.

    1. Ms. Maynard,

      Thanks for reading. We will retract nothing. If KQAI is in the business of public outreach and advocating for justice, they sure did a lackluster job on the mural project. Backroom negotiations with Herz and a post or two on your Facebook page late in the game is shoddy messaging at best.

      KQAI came out with great fanfare in support of Tom Herz last fall, press releases and direct voter outreach, etc. But you chose not to be so public on the murals. If there was ever a time for the KQAI to get out their pens and bullhorns, this was it.

      Herz was the KQAI candidate. He’s yours to manage.

      As far as your limited resources are concerned, it appears you had plenty of time to meet with Herz. So there was certainly enough time to craft a letter to media outlets here about your disappointment with Herz and the importance of these murals to the community where all walks of life coalesced around the project.

      Instead, you tried to handle this mostly in secret, behind closed doors, which is what got Herz in trouble in the first place and caused unnecessary divisiveness, stress and hardship to the parties involved.

      If KQAI is truly a progressive organization that cares about racial justice and ethical and transparent government, you need to publicly walk the walk, even when one of your beneficiaries work contrary to its mission.

      The Kent Pilot

  6. I have lived here only 1 year and 4 months. I have always lived in the “north” or on the west coast. It is invigorating to see history unfold and to be part of, although maybe not enough of an active part, in the change that must happen. We should be upset at the violence and heed the words of John Lewis about nonviolence, all of us. Chestertown will most likely be the last place I call home, but what I see happening is good for the future. Please continue the good work, all of us, agreeing to disagree, but always in good faith and with respect.

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