The town government looks to add one more holiday for its employees beginning in 2021, months after Gov. Ralph Northam declared his intention to make Juneteenth a state holiday.
The council declared Juneteenth as a town government holiday beginning next year during its Tuesday night meeting. Councilman Tom Dunn in July asked for the item to be discussed. All six council members supported the change.
Juneteenth marks the commemoration of the end of slavery in the U.S. Two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves in southern states to be free. On June 19, 1865, a group of Union soldiers landed at Galveston, TX with news that the Civil War had ended and slaves were free.
Juneteenth is not yet recognized as a federal holiday, but over the years many states have begun to adopt the day either as a ceremonial observance or state holiday. Virginia is set to join the ranks of those who observe it as a state holiday following Northam’s announcement on June 16. The matter must still clear the General Assembly.
Leesburg’s Human Resources Director Joshua Didawick said the additional town government holiday would incur a $32,000 cost to the General Fund, accounting for holiday pay for the town’s essential staff, namely police officers and utilities and public works staff.
Dunn said he hoped there could also be some kind of ceremony or recognition on that day. Turns out, one community group is already at work on that. The Burg Family Reunion Club of Leesburg, which lists its mission as preserving the memories of Black descendants of Leesburg, and supporting the current communities of Black Americans residing in the town, is planning its first-ever Juneteenth celebration for next year at Ida Lee Park. The free event will include live music, performances, guest speakers, food, vendors, and more. More information can be found on the Lees “BURG” Juneteenth group on Facebook.
Dunn had also previously asked for a discussion on painting a Black Lives Matter mural on a town street. Renee LaFollette, director of the town’s Public Works and Capital Projects Department, said the town has processes in place for how the Commission on Public Art, and ultimately the Town Council, considers public art like murals and sculptures; and a separate process to secure public right-of-way permits. In the case of right-of-way permits, those are issued administratively, without council review, which LaFollette said would probably not be appropriate in this case. Ultimately, she said a third, new process to consider things like roadway murals or painting might be worth considering.
On the traffic engineering side, LaFollette said roadway murals are not recommended.
“Typically, anything like that is discouraged on roadways used for traffic because it is a distraction for drivers,” she said. “But if council directs they are approving artwork for a roadway it can be done. There are a number of things that have to be considered—the location, the longevity of the art, who’s responsible for removal once it is no longer in good shape, does it get repainted. So, there are a lot of decision points that would need to be made above staff level.”
A short debate ensued during Monday night’s work session on whether something like a Black Lives Matter mural would be considered art or free speech.
“Right now, we have a public art process to OK something like this. As a council if we sanction it I feel … that we would be putting ourselves in a position to maybe inadvertently commit content-based discrimination. This is about speech. It’s not about art. Because we are the policy makers, I think there should be policy and clear standards and metrics in place that comport to constitutional guidelines,” said Councilwoman Suzanne Fox.
“I believe public art is also speech,” countered Councilman Neil Steinberg. “If you don’t think so look at all the graffiti art we see around the country. I think that serves a purpose. Any artist who creates art is creating a statement of some kind or the other. This has a decided public overtone but that doesn’t mean it isn’t art.”
Steinberg suggested integrating such a mural into the Douglass School renovations, but several council members pointed out that plans for that renovation were already far along. Councilman Ron Campbell said there was a need for the council to establish policies and procedures for considering something like a roadway mural before a community group or individual approached the town with such an idea.
“I really believe … that we can’t run from this and we do need policy,” he said. “I understand what doors we may open but the reality is we can’t just be reactionary to everything. So whether or not we want murals on the streets, I think has a greater vision of whether or not we want our citizens to speak and how they speak or where they speak in their community that they also own and live in. [That] should be a freedom, not a restriction. How do we grant that freedom? What are the terms and conditions? What are the opportunities? What are the costs? What are the limitations? What are the restrictions? That’s the work we do and that’s the work that we should be about doing with this particular opportunity.”
While the council as a whole was noncommittal Monday on whether it would consider such a mural, or any type of roadway mural, four members—Mayor Kelly Burk, Vice Mayor Marty Martinez, Steinberg and Campbell—indicated an interest in moving forward with the discussion and exploring options.