The Johnson village fire department stands adamant against the use of the pole on its firefighter monument for a Black Lives Matter flag, its chief concerned the department is being thrust into the middle of a political debate.
“The Johnson Fire Department is Political Neutral,” wrote fire chief Arjay West in a June 30 email that was repeatedly referenced last week as Johnson Village Trustees wrestled with the issue. “It is imperative to our operations, and the safety of our firefighters that we make no indication of political statement or preference. We are here to serve the community and we answer all 911 emergency calls without prejudice or opinion. We must not become caught between any two groups or beliefs.”
At a Sept. 14 meeting that ran until nearly midnight, the board capitulated and decided against flying the Black Lives Matter flag on the monument, but only after hours of heated discussion and the announcement of a trustee’s resignation largely due to the tension in town.
Ultimately, the board decided a Black Lives Matter flag should be flown, on village property, and as soon as possible — just not at the fire department.
In the middle of the discussion, the trustees went into executive session to talk about it, citing exemptions to Vermont’s open meeting laws to discuss a personnel matter. This was roasted by some members of the public who said fire department members could have said their piece in public.
Gordy Smith, chairman of the board of trustees, countered by noting if anyone from the fire department had attended the meeting they would have come under attack. Smith, in turn, was criticized for his coziness with the department.
There was talk about whether the Black Lives Matter flag ought to be on the same pole as the Vermont and U.S. flags, and where it should be placed in relation to those standards, especially when it comes to half-mast remembrances. Village manager Meredith Dolan said the cities of Burlington, Winooski and South Burlington all have multiple flags, including Black Lives Matter, on the same pole.
Trustee Scott Meyer said flying the flag on an already-occupied pole makes it seem like an afterthought, so why not give it its own location, such as the village green? That way, Meyer said, it’ll stand out more and afford people an opportunity to look at it and reflect on what Black people and others, like Native Americans, have suffered in America.
Selectboard member Kyle Nuse said that Black Lives Matter is a human rights movement, and calling it a political movement is untrue, divisive and puts people in danger.
The fire chief used safety as his argument, too, as a reason not to fly the flag on the fire department pole. He maintained there is politics surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Display of any political symbols outside the firehouse must not happen,” West wrote. “That would immediately result in an unsafe environment for our firefighters by exposing them to criticism, anger or aggression from citizens with opposite beliefs. Further, any representation other than Political Neutral would put into jeopardy our working relationship with other emergency response agencies — police, EMS, air ambulance, utilities, haz-mat response — to name a few.”
Trustee stepping down
Another casualty of the tensions around racial issues in Johnson is one of its trustees. Jena Gould-Hopkins will step down Oct. 12, citing the toll the past couple of months has had on her well-being.
In her resignation letter, Gould-Hopkins said a person came to her home after a previous trustee meeting that also dealt with Black Lives Matter flags.
“With an uninvited citizen coming to my home after the vote at the last trustee meeting, and becoming aware that the same individual has written a ‘rant’ on Facebook, I have decided that it is too much stress for me, and my family, to continue,” she wrote. “My intention to be on the board began with excitement and feeling like I was doing something positive for our community. The toll of this is nothing that I could have anticipated. I am deeply sorry to be leaving; it’s for my own wellness.”
Smith said at last week’s meeting that he was sorry that Gould-Hopkins had to join the board at such a divisive time for the town and said he hoped she would rejoin some day.