A meeting this morning between members of the Loudoun NAACP’s executive board and two members of the Leesburg Town Council included some strong words for the elected body, and underscored a desire by the NAACP to see the relationship repaired.
The NAACP board requested the meeting following the controversial presentation of three proclamations by the council in May and June, including one presented to the NAACP in celebration of Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. Those proclamations included statements written by Councilman Tom Dunn, in lieu of his signature, that some community groups and individuals criticized as offensive. In the resolution presented to the NAACP, Dunn wrote, “This is a celebration, lynching is not.” The NAACP had a June 19 ceremony commemorating the county’s first memorial to a 14-year-old lynching victim.
Dunn has previously apologized for offending the groups, but has maintained that the council’s proclamation process had become too politically motivated.
Monday morning, NAACP Legal Redress Committee Chairwoman Buta Biberaj, President Pastor Michelle C. Thomas and Vice President Amanda Tandy represented the executive board and were joined by council-appointed representatives Vice Mayor Marty Martinez and Councilman Neil Steinberg. Councilman Ron Campbell was in attendance in the audience for the meeting.
“There have been a lot of disappointments and expectations not met,” Biberaj said, in speaking on behalf of the NAACP. “We’d like to have a good relationship with the Town of Leesburg.”
Both Biberaj and Thomas expressed their disappointment that other members of the Town Council were not in attendance for the meeting, particularly the subjects of their ire, Dunn and Councilman Josh Thiel, who wrote statements on the proclamations on Dunn’s behalf when he was not present for their signing. The NAACP representatives also directed pointed comments at Mayor Kelly Burk for not supporting a motion to censure Dunn and also not calling for his resignation.
“It would be nice to have those conversations with those persons in person. The perception is it’s not important enough for those individuals to be at the table,” Biberaj said.
Thomas criticized Burk’s “unfortunate history of lack of support for the African American community” and said her absence from the meeting showed she was “not brave enough” to have a conversation about how to move forward. The council voted, with only Campbell opposed, to have an appointed committee of two council members meet with the NAACP board as an initial step moving forward.
Thomas also said she did not understand how the written comments were not spotted before the proclamations were presented to the groups, and questioned whether the remarks would have been caught if they had been on a proclamation representing a group with which a council member identified.
“This is about a process that happened that was a mistake,” Martinez emphasized in response. Steinberg also noted that council members do not see a proclamation after they have signed it, and that Dunn typically is the last person to sign most proclamations.
“A majority of the Town Council is in agreement that [Dunn’s statements] were absolutely inappropriate, and we’ve taken steps to ensure it can’t happen again,” Steinberg said.
He and members of the town staff outlined the steps the council was taking in the wake of the controversy, including a vote set for this week’s meeting that would include changes to the proclamation process. Those include: moving the presentation of proclamations to a half hour before the start of the bimonthly business meeting; voting on proclamations two weeks in advance of their presentation; no longer allowing other council members to sign on another’s behalf; and allowing only signatures to be written on the signature lines.
Town Attorney Barbara Notar noted that the council has to be very careful in terms of upholding freedom of speech protections in any changes it makes to its policies.
“We hear so much rhetoric on the national level; we just don’t want it to be part of our local community,” Biberaj said.
NAACP board members voiced support for those changes, but asked the council to scrutinize its disciplinary procedures for council members in an upcoming review of the ethics policy, set for a meeting Sept. 9. Thomas also asked for a work session to be scheduled to review the town’s Memorandum of Understanding with the NAACP. She praised the relationship between the NAACP and the Leesburg Police Department.
“We do not have that rapport with the Town Council,” she said.
Thomas said the NAACP is still considering what next steps it will take in the wake of the controversy. She had previously expressed support for recalling Burk from office, in addition to calling on Dunn to resign.
“We need a good apology. We need an acknowledgement of what happened,” she said.
In particular, she expressed support for discussing disciplinary measures for council actions and said censure should not be off the table. At the council’s June 24 work session, Campbell raised the subject of censuring Dunn, but did not have the backing of a majority of the council.
Reached after the meeting, Burk defended her record with the local African American community, noting her support for the naming of the alleyway after longtime business owner Nelson “Mutt” Lassiter and the placement of markers along the path for the annual MLK Day celebration.
She said she was disappointed that NAACP leadership does not realize that the mayor and council have to follow certain rules and guidelines in governing. She added that following the democratic process, as the council has, should not trigger vitriol, rhetoric and calls for a recall vote.
“We may feel a certain way but we are still bound by the rules and regulations in our bylaws,” she said.