No better sign of the Talbot County Council’s ineptitude strikes a discordant chord more than the lawsuit filed two weeks ago by the NAACP and the ACLU to remove the Talbot Boys Monument from the public space in front of the county courthouse.
The lawsuit is a direct result of lack of responsiveness and responsibility on the part of the county council. It voted more than a year-and-a-half ago to retain the offensive Confederate monuments. It has done nothing to assuage public opinion, beyond pleasing those determined to keep the monument as is, a statement of white supremacy in the minds of those advocating its removal.
That the monument is the only one representing the Confederacy on public space in Maryland seemingly is a badge of honor to Councilpersons Chuck Callahan, Frank Divilio and Laura Price. Embarrassment is not a factor. Standing your ground amid a public uproar seems preferable to removal of a symbol of Confederate opposition to a united country and an end to slavery.
Lawsuits typically happen when civil discourse ceases. Compromise is no longer achievable. A courtroom or judge’s office becomes the only venue for a legal settlement. A failure to resolve differences produces a litigious outcome, expensive in time, cost and emotion.
I again listened, painfully so, to council proceedings on October 27, 2020 when the council voted 3-2 against a request by Richard Potter, president of the local NAACP, and other community leaders, to meet with the county’s five elected leaders. Both Corey Pack, then the council president, and Councilperson Pete Lesher voted in favor of granting the request. Had I not already known the result of the frequently acrimonious discussion, I would have recoiled from the cowardly stance expressed by Callahan, Divilio and Price.
The three councilpersons adamantly argued against a public hearing for fear of emotional and possibly inflammatory comments voiced by proponents of moving the Talbot Boys Monument. Each one questioned the efficacy of a public hearing, preferring to meet individually with those favoring removal of the monument. Callahan advocated for the question to be submitted to the voters in 2022, ignoring his previous comments during his political service asserting that he and others are elected to take stands on difficult issues, not hide behind a ballot question, to do their jobs.
I found the position taken by the threesome oddly ironic. A public hearing that might become rancorous should be avoided in favor of private conversations, so their reasoning seemed to illustrate. Few people like contention. That I understand.
What puzzles me was a 3-2 decision to pursue non-public conversations, forsaking the role of officials elected to conduct business in front of their constituents.
Pack and Lesher promoted a public hearing to no avail. The latter opined that acceding to the request for a meeting would “restore a spirit of civility and mutual respect.” Pack apologized for his 2015 vote opposing removal of the highly controversial Confederate monument, saying he was “ashamed” of his role. He agreed with Lesher about the potentially harmful effect on tourism and the hospitality business. The two councilpersons bemoaned a statue that exudes an aura of a non-welcoming county that eschews equity and justice.
It is no wonder that the Talbot County Council is the subject of an avoidable lawsuit. A majority of the five-person council voted against public dialogue. It voted against trying to reach common ground with passionate civic leaders intent on moving the Talbot Boys Monument.
It was a mistake.
By refusing to meet with those favoring removal of a hostile symbol entrenched on public ground, Callahan, Divilio and Price exhibited blatant disrespect for the views expressed by residents who disagreed with them.
The threesome closed the door to public dialogue. The decision was regrettable.
As I listened, I sensed an unproductive defensiveness on the part of the three deniers of a legitimate request. They seemed to resent being placed in a position to decide whether to exercise their responsibilities to meet in what might have been a confrontational meeting.
If you read the comments of congressional members nationwide who hold town meetings, you realize that these events can be raucous and discordant. You also learn that the congressional representatives understand that disagreement expressed publicly comes with democratic government.
The lawsuit will now consume time and money. It will prove embarrassing to Talbot County, placing its flawed thinking in the national spotlight. It will diminish its reputation as a desirable place to live, work and play.
Communication can be fraught and fractious. It also can be helpful in calming turmoil and dissension.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.