Such a Small Ask! By Pam Ladds

in Letter to the Editor/Newport/News

It started off as such a small ask. At the City Council meeting where meetings are set for the year, we, citizens of Newport, asked for the City not to schedule a meeting on Martin Luther King Day.

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Out of respect for the day. It was refused. And it was made clear at that meeting that not only did the Council always meet on that day but that City employees did not observe it as a City Holiday.

We were shocked. A holiday elsewhere for more than a quarter of a century, a holiday recognizing an important black leader, who was murdered in our lifetime.

The State of Vermont observes the holiday, schools observe it, banks and the Post Office to name just a few.

At the City Council meeting on January 20th, the issue was raised again, loudly and clearly by Anne Chiarello. She was supported in this by others including one City Council Member.

Other Council Members were unsupportive for a variety of reasons, although none of them had worked that day, their Day Jobs were closed – in observance of the holiday!

See the following link for further information including a video recording of that specific meeting.

It is particularly worth noting that several people, including the Mayor, felt that the discrimination experienced by French speakers was the same as the racial discrimination experienced by others.

That is really clear in the video. As were solutions for those of us with questions.

https://vtdigger.org/2020/01/23/debate-over-recognizing-mlk-jr-day-incites-tempers-at-newport-meeting/amp/https://youtu.be/8lB9lQ1OoWc

Fast forward to the meeting on June 15th, 2020 when the new Union contract was to be ratified, the event we had been told at the previous meeting was the time for change.

A question was raised in the comments part section (the only place citizens are allowed to comment or ask questions unless there is a motion on the floor. The Mayor is not required to answer and comments/issues frequently get no response) about the issue of MLK Day.

We were informed that the contract could not be discussed.

After the Executive Session, and during the appropriate time prior to the vote, the question was asked again. We were informed that the content of the contract was not for discussion but the issue of MLK day was not part of this contract.

The vote then took place. As this meeting took place virtually there were few attendees and the sound quality was poor. We were told the discussion was over.

This meeting was reported in the Barton Chronicle and Newport Daily Express. A particular quote in the NDE from the City Manager is worth noting “When asked by The Newport Daily Express to comment, she said: “Why the public thinks it can attack the city in this way is new to me. It’s none of their affairs. If they’re trying to lay claim that we are racists because we don’t celebrate Martin Luther King Day, then simply call us racists, and we will take care of it from there.”

It is fascinating that raising an issue is considered to be attacking the City, and that it is “none of their affairs”, and ending the quote with a threat “we will take it from there” is considered an appropriate communication style.

The article generated several responses, none of which apparently count, as some of the writers do not live in the City.

They pointed out the impact the City stance could have on tourism, an industry we depend on up here.

The City Manager’s Op-Ed followed in the NDE where, those of us who have the audacity to question, were again taken to task!

As a tax-paying resident of this city, I believe I not only have the right to question, I also have the responsibility to do so when an issue is one of importance.

Since the first ask in January, the issue of racial and environmental injustice has exploded in this country.

Newport had a successful and peaceful Black Lives Matter march, organized by a high school student, well attended and supported by many – including the City Manager, the Police, and 1 City Council member.

The issue is not going away, it is escalating and the events that precipitated it are continuing.

A recent email from the Mayor to a NEK resident (who had asked the City to consider the importance and appearance of recognizing MLK Day) states:

“I also will not cave into the demands of people outside of Newport City who do not live or pay taxes here. I have had zero calls and or emails from Newport City residents regarding the matter.”

Makes it pretty clear that input is not valued from anyone, as we who live here are told we have no right to comment, and those who don’t live here, but do visit, are dismissed out of hand.

It is a challenge to figure out the right form of input or commentary.

There are several issues here:

1. What does observance of a holiday mean and to whom? Should any State/Federal Holiday come with rules about how it can, can’t, or should be recognized? Who makes those rules? It is certainly true that many holidays have changed their original meaning and are now considered days where families come together and celebrate.

How is that not a good thing? Some days have been combined, eg both President’s days – does that indicate a lack of respect?

Consider the Mayor’s email again “Most people receive Memorial and Veterans Day off but do not attend the ceremonies honoring the brave men and women who served our nation so we can enjoy our freedom. I have noticed over the past decade less and less people are attending those ceremonies each year. The members of the public are free to organize events without the city being involved.”

“Ceremonies” and “Parades” are challenging in Newport. Actively discouraged despite every high-priced Consultant that we have had over the last 10 years emphasizing the importance of events! See the shelved reports online or in the Municipal Building.

There is no way to organize a large event in the City without being papered to death and charged a large fee. Or appearing before the Council and begging for fee exemption.

Even if this was appropriate a Federal and State holiday should receive appropriate recognition at a City level too.

2. MLK Day. Apparently despite the State’s position, and the push nationally to recognize Juneteenth also as a holiday, Newport City has not considered this holiday or partial day of service to be important.

It is challenging to have to provide service without it being a day off from regular employment! State and Federal Leaders obviously saw that, just as they recognized the importance of a day honoring those who fought against atrocities and worked for equity and inclusion.

More than that Martin Luther King was the first modern private citizen to be honored with a federal holiday. And the first, and only, minority.

While Newport would like to discuss only the “service” part of the day it should be noted that the federal legislation has never suggested that this be more than part of the day.

Nowhere was it suggested that hardworking people, working towards equality (the original intent of the day) should work more on the day!! (For Newport’s opinion on how to “celebrate” this day please listen to the recording of the City Council meeting from 1/20/20. Referring to us as “couch potatoes” is pretty demeaning).

A day that was intended to promote equal rights for all Americans should be able to do that without those celebrating it being judged and denigrated!

3. Citizen participation. For this to occur citizens have to be valued for more than their financial contribution to the City’s bottom line. And we do not seem to be!

We are actively prevented from speaking at meetings, or asking questions.

A recent City Summit asked for questions before we had the agenda. Not surprisingly they got very few!

We are asked to join Committees that are formed without our input as to relevance, to follow paths mapped out for us.

No surprise, we do not “volunteer.”

When significant changes are proposed to communities, input is dismissed, ignored, and clearly unwelcomed.

We are expected to obey. Attempts to discuss and suggest changes are called “fear and spite” rather than constructive attempts for win/win solutions where neighborhoods get the same consideration as those wanting the changes.

The annual City Report (see link https://drive.google.com/file/d/1k_1KsVPpKCPjaAQKmQAWz9cZKquPQx7t/view p 6-11 which is read by citizens, and those considering moving to the area,) in the Mayor’s Report dismisses those who question as “negative.”

It lauds the City for coming back to life after the EB-5 debacle without recognizing that the same “negative” people asked a lot of appropriate questions during that process, and were shot down verbally, very loudly and publicly!

Those who questioned were correct!

The City Manager in her report, trash-talks those who use social media to be heard.

The irony of seeing her comment “It’s none of their affairs” in the NDE is not lost on us!

Questions are not the problem!

We, who live, work, and play here, want the voices of all our communities to be heard and recognized for their value and contributions.

Pam Ladds

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