By Sarah Richardson
Lewisburg City Council met in regular session on Tuesday, June 22, to discuss updating the city’s banner policy, sign two proclamations, appoint members to several boards, and agree to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding statewide opioid lawsuit payouts. The crowded meeting was attended by a number of area residents, including a large group of members from Greenbrier Valley Pride (GVP).
Council was presented with two options to update the city’s banner policy: One policy stating that banners will only be hung for state and federal holidays, and another which does away with banners altogether. The flag holders on the lampposts will be unaffected, and the city will continue to fly American and West Virginia state flags.
Banners are routinely placed on city-owned lampposts for a variety of reasons including holidays, events, special month recognitions, and more. Any group or individual can submit an application to purchase and fly their own banner design. Until now, the city has reviewed proposed banners on an administrative basis with no written policy in place. With Pride events happening throughout the month of June, Greenbrier Valley Pride President Kelsie Tyson questioned why their application to fly Pride banners in town was denied.
Mayor Beverly White said that city employees held a meeting with their legal council, Tom White, to discuss the banner policy in April. “You’re not the first person we’ve said no to, in fact, you’re number four. We have been approached in a way that, I felt, the city was not going to be protected, we couldn’t protect anybody. That’s why this has come about, to protect all of our citizens.”
City Manager Misty Hill said that several banner applications were submitted to the city that employees had “concerns about.”
“We already had applications that were brought before us that we reviewed with Tom [White] to deny,” Hill explained. “I just wanted to clarify that there were several before yours, Kelsie, that were denied. […] Once the concerns came before us with Pride we felt that bringing it to council would be the best opportunity to hear everyone because that is the whole point, making sure everyone has the ability to have their voice heard.”
City officials did not provide further details about the other banner applications that were rejected.
Hill explained that the city attorney reviewed options for the banners over the last few weeks by speaking with ethics boards and other entities.
Councilmembers spoke at length before taking a vote on the issue, starting with Arron Seams.
“Personally, seeing Pride banners displayed on the city’s lampposts last year during the Pride month celebration was inspiring to me as a member of Lewisburg’s queer community,” he said. He explained he is “frustrated” that there are still gaps in equity and equality within the state and country. “Those gaps protect hate speech and violence, yet they let our most vulnerable fall right through.”
He clarified that, “At issue this evening is not whether the city, this council, or the municipal administration is for or against Pride, or for or against our queer community and our allies. At issue is how the city of Lewisburg cannot and should not establish a public platform where individuals may exercise their first amendment expression, and then arbitrate who has access to that public forum, or curate what type of content is displayed.”
Seams said that he is in favor of the city discontinuing the ability for individuals and groups to provide banners for the city to display, arguing that if the city codifed a platform for public speech, it would then be powerless to deny any individual or group “the right to say nearly anything they can afford to have printed on banners.”
He emphasized that he doesn’t believe he was elected to council to “codify a mechanism that could be weaponized against residents at most risk of being targeted with hate and violence.” His stance to disallow banners, he believes, helps “avoid needlessly empowering and allowing the display of hateful speech and bigoted messaging and symbols in the future.”
Seams said he is inspired by local businesses who have chosen to repatriot the Pride banners by flying them in their storefronts and public-facing windows, and concluded with, “I am also proud that Lewisburg is home to the second Greenbrier Valley Pride Parade and Block Party this weekend, and I am proud of this city’s history of making actionable change to chip away at the impunity that bigots often enjoy.”
GVP President Tyson stated that she has sincere appreciation that GVP is able to be held in Lewisburg, especially with Lewisburg being one of only 15 municipalities in the state that has a LGBTQIA+ nondiscrimination ordinance. “I know that flying the Pride banners might feel so miniscule compared to the water plant, compared to whatever actions you are working towards to have a safe and healthy town and environment. But in a place where there is no representation, it matters. It’s crucial. Representation is crucial, and it’s fundamentally life-changing.”
“You are seen, and you are heard,” responded Mayor White. “And I’m glad that we can safely have a block party and parade. What we do is to protect all of you, and that’s our goal. Our goal when we do anything is to protect our city and protect our citizens.”
Councilmember Sarah Elkins explained her stance, which was to vote to remove banners from the lampposts. “I’ve done a lot of research since this debate has come before us, […] I make this motion from a place of seconding what Arron said, that I feel this is the motion that protects the members of this community best.”
“Discrimination is never good, regardless from who it’s coming from or who’s getting it,” said Councilmember Franklin Johnson. “The lampposts out there are the city’s and we try to give everybody a voice, but at the same time, some voices that want to be heard may not be a good thing.” He explained that he doesn’t want to see anyone discriminated against, and said that protecting the city is what he believes he was elected to do, and “not afford the opportunity to discriminate, I know what it feels like.”
However, two councilmembers felt differently. “I would like to see the banners stay and be regulated,” said Councilmember Valerie Pritt.
Also expressing a desire to keep some banners was Councilmember John Little, who explained that legal counsel advised that removing the banners was the “safest” option for protecting the city from “unnecessary litigation, and I think, more importantly, as Arron mentioned, it being weaponized for things that maybe none of us in this room, or certainly not me, would want to see the banners being used for.” However, he stated, “I’m not in favor of removing the banners, I’m not in favor of removing the idea of ‘government speech.’ Our city council should take a stance on what we believe the city stands for. […] At some point in time we have to decide where our line is, and our line is not removing the banners.”
A vote was held, and with four voting in favor of removing the banners and two against, the vote to remove banners from the lampposts passed.
“The policy that council just adopted is the first formal, written policy the council has had regarding banners,” explained Seams. “In the past, it has been done as a discretionary, administrative item, so the banners were never subject to council’s scrutiny and approval. When there were multiple groups, with Mayor mentioning that yours was the fourth that approached the city about hanging banners, they were denied and it became clear that ‘an unwritten policy is about the worst kind of policy.’”
“The only thing I have leaving here that makes me feel icky is I hate that I’m feeling that Pride, LGBTQ people, and us asking for representation is being combined, and denied, with whatever these other applications were, I’m not sure what hate speech,” said Tyson. “While GVP is an organization, and people can take that as political, being a gay person is not political. I’m a person that deserves rights.”
“I agree with you,” Seams responded. “It does feel icky to take away something because you have a few bad apples. […] I think that if there was a way to carve out a space for Pride banners to be hung, and it not be illegal, I would certainly vote for that.”
Pritt explained, “What it boils down to is that we can’t regulate content, and that is unfortunate, because we do know that there is hate speech that is protected under that first amendment right. I don’t agree with it, and I wish at this moment in time that we could provide a better solution.”
Earlier in the meeting, a proclamation declaring June 25, 2022 as LGBTQIA+ Pride Day in Lewisburg was signed by Mayor Beverly White to a round of applause by attendees. The proclamation states in part: “Research indicates that stigma and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ individuals contributes to adverse health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ adults, such as major depressive disorder, binge drinking, substance use, and suicide, and whereas education and awareness of LGBTQIA+ individuals and the issues they face helps to decrease instances of discrimination, plus helping to combat adverse health outcomes for these individuals.”
The document explains that LGBTQIA+ Pride Day helps increase awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues, and supports the availability of services for individuals that belong to the community. June is already recognized nationally as LGBTQIA+ Pride Month.
Council also heard a reading of a proclamation declaring June 15, 2022 as Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which “encourages all residents to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Greenbrier County and Lewisburg seniors.”
In other news:
~Jim Rowe and Barbara Elliot were appointed to the library board. Rowe will serve the last two years of Danny Boone’s term, and Elliot will serve a five year term. Helen Harless, Margaret Gossard, and Tia Bouman were all reappointed to the Planning Commission for three year terms. Matt Campbell, artistic director at Greenbrier Valley Theatre, was recommended to be appointed to the Planning Commission as well. David Craddock and Donna Johns were reappointed to the Historic Landmarks Commission for three year terms. All appointments and reappointments were approved unanimously by council.
~Council held a roughly hour-long executive session with legal representatives regarding the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that deals with opioid settlement fund distribution within the city. Lewisburg joins “99.9 percent” of other West Virginia municipalities participating in opioid lawsuits and settlements, according to their legal council on the matter. More information on the settlement progress will be released as it becomes available.
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