Democracy in action was on display during Tuesday evening’s (June 21) Board of Selectmen meeting after seven residents who spoke during the public comment period prompted the board to add an agenda item to consider the residents’ request.
The individuals who made public comments at the meeting’s start were urging the selectmen to show official town support for LGBTQIA+ Pride, either through a proclamation by First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice or by raising a Pride flag over Town Hall.
Vanderslice said a Pride proclamation didn’t qualify under the town’s current framework for deciding what causes merit a proclamation.
But appeals from the residents moved Selectman Bas Nabulsi to make a motion to add to the agenda a discussion about possibly changing the way the town decides how to issue proclamations.
The move was notable, given that changing the agenda based on public comment is something that doesn’t happen very often.
Several residents offered comments during the Zoom meeting.
The first to speak was Vanessa Elias, who said she’s a mental health activist and parent coach who’s been working on the Wilton Pride initiative since last summer. Elias was concerned that LGBTQ+ youth in Wilton are at risk and would be helped by official support from the town in the form of “a proclamation of acceptance and support for the LGBTQ+ community.”
“Last summer, when we started the initiative with [Pride] lawn signs, we had many signs stolen, run over, things thrown at them, and I don’t want to have to wait for a hate crime for us to make a proclamation,” she said, later adding “Almost half of LGBTQ youth considered suicide in the last year, which is a rate that’s been rising.”
Elias said several nearby towns have issued proclamations in support of Pride, including Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich and Darien. “Officials have raised a flag, have had big town-wide events, and that sends a clear message to especially LGBTQ+ youth that they are seen and accepted.”
Her points were echoed by resident Donna Peterson, who said, “It’s very important from the top down to show support because people are going to follow that trend. And until that happens, it may be difficult for others to step forward and participate in really helping to let people feel inclusivity in town.”
Resident Olga Zargos-Traub said an official statement of support for Pride Month would set an example.
“I understand it’s a very sensitive topic. I understand it could be a watershed issue from a political standpoint. But Wilton needs to recognize how important it is to support this community. Every town surrounding us has accepted, has supported, has fully embraced this culture change in our society. And I think it’s a shame if we continue to be afraid as a community to fly a flag, to make a proclamation, to support our children, to support our community, to support people that are just making a different choice or believe in something different,” she said.
Nicole Wilson-Spiro suggested that not only would official recognition of Pride month be something appealing to anyone considering living in Wilton but that the absence of such support was a drawback.
“It makes our town more attractive, more modern to say, ‘Hey, we’re inclusive. We support everyone.’ To me that’s only a positive. Not making a statement at this point is making a statement, right? When Ridgefield has a flag up, when Westport has a flag up, when New Canaan… everybody else does, when we don’t, it’s like, well, wait a minute, why don’t we have something up?” she asked.
Nicola Davies commented that the town could match what Wilton businesses are already doing. “There is an enormous [Pride] flag flying outside ASML. Our biggest taxpayer in town is supporting it. I would love to see the town do this too.”
Following public comment, Vanderslice explained how she decides what proclamations to make, noting that she currently issues only five annual proclamations — Domestic Violence Awareness Day, Overdose Awareness Day, Gun Violence Awareness Day, Sexual Assault Awareness Day and Arbor Day. (She later explained there’s no number limit of proclamations but those five causes fit her criteria.)
“There’s a direct correlation to the work of the [municipal] departments,” she said, pointing to the fact that Wilton Police, Fire, EMS and Social Services are “directly involved” with cases of domestic violence and overdoses.
Vanderslice said many more requests for proclamations than she issues — but if there is no direct correlation between the work of the town and the cause, it doesn’t reach the level of her requirements. As examples, she said she’s been asked to issue proclamations about the number of abortions in the U.S., encouraging donations to support Ukraine and highway tolls in Connecticut.
“Sometimes I’m going to get asked for a proclamation that some of you that just asked me to do a [Pride] proclamation might not like, so we keep it to that window. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t care and the residents of this community, just like the businesses and other communities can do what they do. It doesn’t have to be that the Board of Selectmen or the First Selectman do something so that the community can participate,” Vanderslice said.
She added that her own personal beliefs don’t factor into that criteria. “The tough thing you have to do when you’re in this position is, sometimes when there are things that you care about — which, I’m not going to go into my personal family’s history — but if you know anything about me, you know gay rights is important to me.”
There will be a banner on Town Hall’s front lawn for one week that supports and promotes an LGBTQIA Pride event organized by a group of Wilton Girl Scouts. Vanderslice said the group met a separate set of requirements for erecting a banner, which only allows non-profit groups hosting an event in town to apply to do so.
Additionally, Vanderslice pointed out that the BOS typically doesn’t issue its own proclamations, with only one exception during her seven years in office. In 2017, the Selectmen issued a proclamation on “Civility, Respect and Understanding”.
Vanderslice suggested that “at some [later] point” the BOS could consider discussing the parameters she has set for issuing proclamations.
But moved by the earlier public comments, Nabulsi asked if the BOS could discuss either Vanderslice’s criteria or the possibility of issuing a proclamation at that evening’s meeting.
“It seems to me at a minimum, we have a responsibility to discuss amongst the five of us, the policy and how it’s been structured and how it’s being applied. So at a minimum, personally, I’d like to see that put on the agenda,” he said.
Nabulsi also asked whether, “hypothetically” BOS members could pass a resolution that evening directing Vanderslice to issue a proclamation supporting Pride, if they determined they wanted to after their discussion.
Vanderslice said they could, and the board voted 4-1 to add the discussion to the end agenda, with all BOS members agreeing except the first selectwoman, who told them, “I think it requires a lot more thought.”
When the board returned to the topic — almost four hours later — Vanderslice elaborated on her sentiment.
“The policy that is in place right now for proclamations, if we’re going to change it, I think we need to put thought into it because there could be unintended consequences,” she said. “If you’re going to open the door, if you’re going to change the framework, then you have work to try to identify what are all the consequences of that? If every resident who wants to come up with a proclamation, if we say yes to every one of them, there may be some you really aren’t enthusiastic about.”
Vanderslice said Town Counsel Ira Bloom has advised her that having a framework in place is important.
The discussion turned to whether the Board’s current Civility Proclamation could suffice. Selectman Ross Tartell suggested that the first paragraph “speaks very nicely to the issues that people were speaking about.” But Vanderslice thought the residents who spoke wanted a separate proclamation.
“We the Selectmen of Wilton, CT do hereby affirm our town’s commitment to strive for civility, respect and understanding, and to value the diversity of those who live in, work in and visit our community without regard to gender, religion, sexual orientation, race, national origin, ethnicity, disability, political views, or social or economic status.”
Nabulsi thought the residents’ request for a Pride proclamation did meet the criteria Vanderslice has set.
“You indicated that, using Ukraine as an example… that doesn’t directly relate to the town. Let’s use that as the example, as compared to the Pride effort, which I think our Social Services group would say has a direct impact on the social health of our community. I think the education circles within our community would believe that there is a connection here. And for those that are in the Pride world, that feeling recognized and seen is important to them, and that is important for our school community. So I feel like the criteria that you use, if overlaid on this particular topic, that there is a match,” Nabulsi said.
Vanderslice countered that she doesn’t consider the schools under her purview, and that there isn’t as direct a connection to multiple municipal departments for Pride as the other proclamation topics.
“I would have to think about what the other things that could come forward. That’s why I really think we need time. What are the other things that could come forward and people could ask us,” she said, using a hypothetical comparison to some residents’ possible interest in highway tolls or gasoline taxes. “I need to think about what are you opening the door to because it doesn’t fit … in the same way that the things that we do now fit in and it’s widening the door and what else might we be doing?”
Vanderslice tried to address some other points raised by the public comments.
“We have a proclamation and we talk about those things, which addresses that without being specific. … And I recognize people said there are a lot of towns that do that. We have stayed specific to our business. When other towns were out doing resolutions on tolls, or proclamations on a lot of other subjects, we just don’t do that here. So I need more information to know what else under the topic of inclusion could be brought to us, and you’ve boxed yourself in,” she said.
With the meeting reaching 11 p.m. and stretching beyond four hours, Selectwoman Kim Healy said it was too late in the evening to reasonably make any decision. “We need to come back and have a meeting during normal, regular hours that aren’t after 11 p.m. at night. I just feel like I can’t make a rational decision right now. Whatever happens, I’m not voting on anything right after except [to] end the meeting. I’m sorry.”
One thing Vanderslice reiterated was that her hesitation to allow a Pride proclamation had nothing to do with any stance against the LGBTQ+ community, especially in an answer to a comment from Selectman Joshua Cole:
“We issued the proclamation a couple years ago that covers all of these principles in a broad brush without getting into specifics because certain issues are hot button issues for people. And we have to be cognizant of respecting all viewpoints while still maintaining the principles that we’ve all agreed. We govern the town by inclusion and accepting everyone, regardless of everything that we say in the proclamation,” Cole said.
Vanderslice responded quickly. “I just want to respond to one thing that you said, because it is the law, it’s illegal to discriminate. And so if somebody has an issue [if] there’s going to be a pride banner on the lawn of Town Hall, and if somebody writes me and wants to discriminate against people, that’s just wrong, it’s against a law to discriminate. You said people have different views — I mean, it’s the law. So there is no discrimination and that’s what basically we’ve said — we don’t discriminate. So I just want to make that clear, my motivation has nothing to do with fear of somebody’s going to call me up and complain,” she said.
Nabulsi agreed that the current Civility Proclamation could speak to that evening’s request from the public but at the same time he’d like to give the question more thought.
Vanderslice agreed, noting that the discussion could continue at a later date, and in preparation she would compile a list of all the proclamation requests she has received.
Final Public Comment
In the final public comment part just before the meeting adjourned, Wilton resident Farah Masani warned that not making a specific proclamation for Pride could have consequences:
“This impacts everyone in town, not only cops, schools… social services. The idea of a child committing suicide because they’re not accepted in town can be prevented by a proclamation. One in five people who are part of Gen Z are LGBTQ+. We need to be inclusive of them specifically because mental health rates are higher in that population. Suicide is higher in that population. And if we have a proclamation that’s inclusive, which I am aware of, what harm is it going to do to be specific? Just like we have a specific proclamation for domestic violence. What harm is it going to do to be specific for this Pride proclamation? I understand the need to be conservative and hesitant, but I also urge you to act quickly because we don’t want to have a proclamation after there is a death, a suicide.”