STONEHAM - Stunned by the weekend defacement of an impromptu bikeway memorial to slain Minneapolis father George Floyd, Select Board member Raymie Parker met unexpected resistance on Tuesday night to a request to officially reaffirm the town's commitment to inclusiveness.
In an uncomfortable and emotional debate that left many virtual meeting onlookers squirming in their chairs, senior Select Board member Caroline Colarusso torpedoed Parker's attempts to restate Stoneham's commitment to social justice and equality in an official response to the vandalism incident.
Instead, the Select Board will revisit the issue on Friday, when the town officials are expected to vote on whether or not to adopt the language of the proposed position statement.
As Parker pointed out, a number of other committees and civic leaders in Stoneham had already responded to Floyd's alleged murder in late May, which was captured on video by a number of protesting bystanders along a busy Minneapolis street.
And with reports emerging earlier this week that a portrait of Floyd along the Tri-Community Greenway by the I-93 pedestrian tunnel had been defaced last Saturday with paint, Parker felt it important to add her voice to that chorus.
"In light of events that happened over the weekend, I think there's a need for our board to say something," said Parker. "I'm hoping we can follow suit with other boards in town, like our police department, our Human Rights Commission, and our coalition. We're a little late to the party."
"We're the leaders of the town. We need to stand up," the second-term Select Board member later remarked.
Colarusso's objections were based on the fact that the proposed Select Board statement was not posted as an official agenda item, nor was the public asked to give any input about the matter.
She also insisted that if the board as a whole is going to respond to the national outrage and growing civil unrest over Floyd's senseless killing, everyone deserved a chance to read over the statement and request the addition of their own thoughts and comments.
"Words are important, especially when our nation and community is hurting. To me, it's inappropriate that others weren't asked to weigh in on it. So it's not representative of the whole board," said Colarusso, in remarks made before Parker even had a chance to share what she had prepared.
Ultimately, Parker after considerable debate was allowed to read her statement (run in its entirety on P.A5), which decried the death of Floyd and other people of color across the nation as indicative of the country's long and continuing struggle against discrimination and racism.
The statement also directly referenced Stoneham's official human rights statement, which calls for the "equal treatment and opportunity to all individuals regardless of race, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, ideology, socio-economic status, health, sexual orientation, age, military status or disability."
Lastly, Parker's proposal implored community leaders to embrace its commitment to inclusivity by taking additional steps to address the root causes of institutional racism.
"This can only be done by continued conversation and by ensuring all residents feel safe when addressing these issues. We must make a commitment, collectively as a community, to ensure that we address systemic inequities," the draft statement reads.
"We have borne witness to the public outcry across the nation and cannot stand by in silence. We must review current policies and procedures and create new ones with the intention of eliminating disparity and further strengthening the bonds between us all," Parker's proposal added.
Acknowledging her proposed statement was sprung on her board colleagues at the last moment, Parker ultimately consented to Colarusso's request to wait until Friday before the board decides whether to endorse her statement.
However, Parker at several points during the unanticipated debate was unable to hide her frustration around Colarusso's attempts to quash the discussion before she could even read her statement aloud.
"Because of the concerns [around following the proper vetting process], I'm going to vote no. I do think that everybody needs to have a say in this…everybody," the Select Board member remarked on Tuesday, after several of her colleagues refused to consider Colarusso's proposed delay.
"I was more upset that she wouldn't listen at first [to what I had to say]," Parker subsequently commented in a post-meeting interview on Wednesday morning. "There's a process with the Select Board [where we have to debate and vote on everything], and I understand that. But we're in a moment of time where people are looking to leaders for answers. Us being silent doesn't help."
Colarusso has during her tenure repeatedly butted heads with Parker and other board members over the Select Board's adoption of new policies and positions without first debating such issues at-length in a public setting. She has also been a steadfast advocate of allowing the general public to weigh-in on all matters pending before the board.
Citing similar reasons for her request to delay a vote on the official Select Board statement this week, Colarusso insisted town leaders had an obligation to make sure such an important issue was carefully vetted.
"We don't do this for licenses. This is much more important that some of the trivial things we have on our agenda, and we're just pushing this through," she reasoned. "Even a site plan gets more debate than this."
Parker told Colarusso she understood the concerns around the process, particularly as they related to the matter not being listed on the agenda. However, given Saturday's act of vandalism, which Select Board Chair Shelly MacNeill described as an act of cowardice, Parker felt it necessary for Stoneham's leadership to take a clear and immediate stance.
The Select Board member, who drafted the public statement at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, also advised Colarusso that she had spoken to Town Counsel Robert Galvin about the potential Open Meeting Law issue and was advised she could raise the topic by asking to amend the agenda.
Though Parker ultimately agreed to a compromise to be sure Stoneham's leaders were united in their response, Select Board member George Seibold blasted Colarusso for advancing what he dubbed as an obstructionist agenda.
Furious by Colarusso's commentary, Seibold refused to even entertain her request — even though Parker herself would later ask that the vote be delayed.
No," defiantly barked Seibold, who rushed to Parker's defense and refused to withdraw his motion to formally endorse her proposed statement. "I just want to accept this and move on…We're all grown ups here. We can do the right thing, right now. I'd like to see this not get twisted and prolonged for no reason."
"I want to thank Raymie for taking the time to do that. This should be a no-brainer. I just don't see how it could be an issue," he also said. "My God, it's just a nice statement from the board. I just don't see how this could be dissected so much."
Likewise, Select Board member Heidi Bilbo also refused to withdraw her support of Seibold's motion. Ultimately, that two-to-two deadlock on advancing the statement put MacNeill in the awkward position of playing tie-breaker.
Respecting Parker's request to wait for an unanimous show of support on the delicate issue, the chair voted in favor of postponing the decision until Friday afternoon, when the Select Board will hold a virtual meeting at 12:30 p.m.