The county council voted 3-2 Tuesday night against removing the statue atop the rebel monument on the courthouse lawn.
The vote on Resolution 290 came after a majority of the members of the Talbot County Council voted against, or abstained from, amendments that called for removing the entire monument, not just the statue.
Council President Corey Pack and Councilman Pete Lesher voted for removal; members Frank Divilio, Chuck Callahan, and Laura Price voted against.
The vote, held in council chambers closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, drew a quick response from local residents fighting to have the statue removed.
Signs reading “Take it down” and “Vote them Out” were affixed to the statue and a growing crowd gathered on Dover Street outside the courthouse to shout “take it down,” “no justice, no peace,” “black lives matter,” and other chants that could be heard inside the council chambers.
A banner reading “No hate in our state” later was unfurled as the demonstration continued.
After a brief recess near the end of the meeting, the council decided to suspend the remainder of the session.
“We understand that citizens are quite upset over the earlier vote taken today so council is going to go ahead and suspend the balance of this meeting,” Pack announced. “Basically we’re at the end of the meeting.”
“I know there has been a number of people online (teleconference) for public comment. We certainly will take any comment in writing that persons will have,” he said.
Pack, who proposed Resolution 290, had previously voted against the monument’s removal.
“Where I was five years ago is not where I am today,” he said before the final vote. “People change, times change. And I’ve said repeatedly that a man who fails to change his mind will never change the world that’s around him….
“I do not support the Talbot Boys statue remaining on the courthouse lawn. I don’t think it’s appropriate. I know what I’ve said in the past and I’m very much aware of what I’ve said in the past, but it is not appropriate to keep that symbol on the courthouse lawn,” he said.
“I’ve made my apologies to myself, I’ve made my apologies to … persons previously because of my vote in the past. It’s not one of my better votes and I’m ashamed to have voted that way.
“But that’s done, that’s in the past,” Pack said. “We can only look to the future and only make those changes today which will impact our future. I think that not removing that statue will certainly say a lot about this county, a lot about this council as we move forward through the rest of this term and into the next.”
Lesher, in comments before the vote, said the decision would speak to what the county believes in and its failure to change and said he was worried about the effect on the county’s tourism and hospitality industries.
“The removal of this monument … would not change the history of this county and it may not directly improve anyone’s economic or physical well-being, but the number who’ve expressed their feelings in this matter have made it clear that this, this is indeed a powerful symbol and our actions on it tonight, I’m afraid, sadly speak to who we are now as a county and the extent to which we have not yet changed.
“I hope, I aspire, to be better than this.
“Our failure to act to remove this monument from the courthouse square, in our failure to do so, Talbot County increasingly puts its tourism economy at risk along with our legendary reputation for hospitality,” Lesher said. “Whatever it may have meant in the past, the Talbot Boys today is not viewed as a welcoming symbol, that we accommodate all people here with equity and with justice.
“Now, more than ever, if Talbot County’s economy is to recover from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 pandemic, I fear that we further imperil it by allowing us to remain the last holdout of a Confederate monument on public property outside of a battlefield or a cemetery in the state of Maryland.”
Saying it applied to the situation in Talbot County, Lesher also read an excerpt from the speech New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu made in May 2017 after that city removed its Confederate monuments:
“To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.
“History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. Surely we are far enough removed from that dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong. And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African-Americans or anyone else to drive by this property that they as members of the public own occupied by reverential statues and names of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.
“Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. We are better together than we are apart.”
Before the vote, Divilio, Callahan, and Price pushed for delay, arguing the council’s decision to close its meetings to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing technical issues with the audio for the live video and teleconference of meetings had restricted public input.
Divilio and Callahan also called for the public to decide the issue by putting the statue’s removal on the ballot in 2022, while Price argued that the resolution was improperly introduced because the council only was meeting during the pandemic to deal with critical operations and the budget.
“I’d like to push it down the road a little bit,” Callahan said, noting the two amendments introduced Tuesday night.
He said it is difficult to hold meetings without the public in attendance.
“This is a big deal for a lot of people and it’s a big deal for us to make such a historical decision on something that is 150 years old. We’re changing the way we’re looking at history,” Callahan said. “I think we better really take a couple steps back and make sure we’re doing the right thing and at this time I don’t think we’re doing the right thing.”
Price also opposed taking action Tuesday night and suggested Resolution 290 had been improperly introduced.
“Because we have had no public input on amendments 2 or 3, I believe that that is inappropriate for us to take any votes on the amendments this evening and additionally the entire resolution should not have been introduced under our emergency order,” Price said. “We were only supposed to deal with critical legislation and the budget at this time. As an example, we let several pieces of legislation expire including short-term rentals that’s also supposed to be voted on this evening.
“Certainly this is a worthy issue to be given its proper attention but it is not appropriate to vote on tonight when we still lack sufficient public comment, knowledge of the cost of any removal, approval of the historic district commission … and knowledge of where and how the statue will be stored,” she said. “Because we have not had that feedback from the public and I believe this resolution was introduced at a time that was deemed only critical to county operations and the budget, I believe that we should not vote on anything this evening, but especially the amendments which have had no public input at all.”
Pack noted amendments are often introduced by members and voted on without additional public hearing and the proposed amendments were not deemed as substantive changes to the overall bill.
And, unless Resolution 290 is passed, there is nothing to take before the Easton Historic District Commission, he said.
Pack and Lesher also noted the first amendment, which would have changed Resolution 290 to include the removal of the entire monument, had been publicly available before the July 28 hearing on the resolution.
“If the statue is simply removed, there will never be a statue that represents a very complex period in the county’s history,” Price said. “If people haven’t come together with any effort over the past five years, it surely isn’t going to happen once it’s gone.”
Divilio said he had offered an idea for a unity statue, suggesting a group be formed to develop a design and raise funds for a new monument.
“I’m committed to move forward with a plan, a committee, and a ballot question so that we can put this issue to rest with full public input at the nearest possible election,” he said.
“Now it’s time for us to put it back to the community, if they’ve asked three different councils to change their opinion and we’ve tried, we’re putting it back to the community to put it on a ballot question would be my plan so that everybody has an opportunity to voice their opinion.”
With the pandemic and a budget freeze, Callahan said it was the wrong time for the council to vote on the issue. He also called for the public to decide the fate of the statue.
“I think that this should be in the hands of the community and not our hands. This is something that should be voted on from the community. People have asked me many, many times can you put it on the ballot? We all know we can’t do that this go-round. We’d have to do it in ’22.
“It’s only fair that the community make that decision, not us. I feel very uncomfortable with something that’s happened 155 years ago and I’m making a decision on whether this thing should go or not. I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think that should be my decision, I don’t think it should be the council decision, I think it’s the community that should be making that.”
Callahan also noted a prior council had rejected the statue’s removal in recent years and had said it would consider a Union statue if a group proposed one.
Pack noted Callahan had frequently said in the past that county voters had elected him to make decisions.
“So you can’t go back and forth and say one day they hired you to do a job … and now say you’re going to throw it back on the people,” Pack said.
Divilio interjected, arguing that Pack was twisting his and Callahan’s comments, but Callahan said to let Pack finish.
Pack noted he had not mentioned Divilio’s comments and was simply highlighting Callahan’s prior statements contradicting his stance on the statue removal.
“Let’s go back five years ago,” Callahan responded. “We’re dealing with your change right now; you’ve done flip flopped 180 degrees. We’re dealing with that as a council. So if I feel like it’s the wrong time and we need the public to vote on this, that’s what I think. So don’t tell me I’m this and I’m that ….”
After a somewhat heated discussion between the two men, Callahan said, “We’re talking history here…. And nobody’s here that’s on that statue — there’s 84 names on that statue — and they can’t stand in front of us and tell us what their thoughts are. And that’s something you need to think about too.”
This is the third time the county council has rejected calls to remove the monument, which has a statue of a young flag bearer holding the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia atop a base listing the names of 84 men from Talbot County who fought against the United States.
As the nation continues to grapple with the wounds of its history of slavery, white supremacy, and racism, and amid cries for equal justice for all races, former rebel states have seen fit to remove the battle flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army and to remove statues to rebel leaders from public spaces.
Mississippi voted this summer to remove the battle flag from its state flag. Richmond, Va., capital of the Confederacy, removed all Confederate monuments from Monument Avenue.
In Talbot County, more than 400 patriots fought for the Union, significantly higher than the 84 rebels who fought against their state and country.
As the council met Tuesday night, Marjorie Opalski and daughter Jessica stood at the main Washington Street entrance to the courthouse lawn. Marjorie Opalski held her cell phone, listening to the council discussion on speaker, as Jessica held a sign that read: “No Confederate statues.”
While mother and daughter were the only two demonstrating earlier Tuesday night, a crowd began gathering on the lawn after the vote, moving to the entrance to the courthouse’s south wing, where the county council meets, before moving to the sidewalk along Dover Street where they chanted for justice and the statue’s removal outside the windows to the council chamber.
Among the crowd were Easton Council President Megan Cook and Talbot NAACP President Richard Potter. A marked Easton Police Department SUV drove down Dover Street several times, but didn’t stop.
Talbot County Sheriff Joe Gamble and a deputy arrived about 8:30 p.m. and went inside the building for a period of time before Gamble left less than 30 minutes later.
At about 9 p.m., the demonstrators split into several groups to ensure all exits from the south wing of the courthouse were covered and council members would have to face citizens upset about the vote.
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