Dozens of Wellesley Town Meeting members, and a handful of other residents, spent three-and-a-half hours on Tuesday night discussing whether to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day or to instead celebrate Italian American Heritage Day on the second Monday in October, and Indigenous Peoples Day in November. In the end, 63% approved an article promoting the former, and just over 40% approved the latter article during the fully online meeting moderated by Mark Kaplan (full results).
See entire Tuesday Town Meeting recording embedded below
However, Town Meeting members earlier in the night voted in favor of amendments brought forth by TM member Royall Switzler advocating for a town-wide vote on either of the above articles if they passed Town Meeting before such articles would take effect. “This is a referendum on the issue that I think all of our town citizens should have an opportunity to vote on,” he said. (While they might get such an opportunity, some pointed out that Wellesley is hard-pressed to get more than a quarter of registered voters to the polls for any issue.)
What the approval of the amendment for Article 42 means is that supporters of Indigenous Peoples Day will need to wait until at least fall of 2021 before becoming officially recognized in town.
It would seem logical that voters, who will be asked to go to the polls for a special election to fill the vacancy left by Board of Selectmen member Jack Morgan , who resigned in May, could also vote on whether to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day while they’re there. However, this will not be the case. Town counsel has advised that as a matter of law, this public policy issue would need to be addressed at annual town election through the efforts of Town Meeting and likely the Board of Selectmen.
The night’s focus began on two citizen petitions, Article 42 and 43:
- Article 42 asks that in Wellesley the second Monday of October henceforth be commemorated as Indigenous Peoples Day and that the town cease to recognize Columbus Day.
- Article 43 supports the observance of Italian American Heritage Day on the second Monday in October to coincide with National Italian-American Heritage Month and supports the observance of Indigenous Peoples Day on a to-be-designated day in the month of November to coincide with National Native American Heritage Month.
Article 42 was promoted heavily by the World of Wellesley (WOW), and a large group of students got behind it and filled Town Meeting members’ inboxes with emails urging them to vote in favor of it (some found the students’ effort a valuable civics lesson during a school year turned upside down by COVID-19, while others felt they were under assault). The Indigenous Peoples Day movement has been years in the works in town, and an article similar to Article 42 was pulled from last year’s town meeting in an effort for WOW to work with the town to better educate residents on the issues.
Article 43 was positioned by its supporters as a compromise.
Despite the apparently successful campaign efforts by those supporting Article 42, the amendments put forth by Switzler, a longtime TM member and past State Representative, wound up taking the night in an unexpected direction. So unexpected, that even one of his longtime opponents on political matters, attorney David Himmelberger, agreed with Switzler on the amendments and the need to put the question before all voters.
Himmelberger stressed that he sees voting for the amendments not as an abdication of Town Meeting member responsibilities, but as taking a decisive action. “I don’t think it’s fair to call it a kicking of the can down the road…” he said. “I’m in favor of recognizing and celebrating the Indigenous People, but I also believe that we ought to be inclusive and respectful of our town citizens… I have to say, we’re in unusual times, it’s COVID-19 and there’s no greater recognition of that than I’m agreeing with Mr. Switzler on something.”
Others, like TM member Stephen Murphy (another lawyer, at about the 2-hour, 11-minute mark of recording below), argued that the town has been putting off the pro-Article 42 backers for a couple of years now and coming into this Town Meeting, was set to put them off again until fall in an effort to focus this meeting solely on financial matters. He pointed out the involvement of many young people in the movement. “It is, I think for many of them the first real life experience in meaningful civics beyond coloring pictures of Betsy Ross sewing a flag by the fireplace. These people deserve an answer tonight, whether it’s Yes or No from us. They’ve asked us. If we adopt this amendment we are giving them a non-answer…The message we would really be saying to them is yes, you may have a right to petition your government for redressing your grievances, but don’t expect an answer, at least a timely one.”
Although Article 43 did not win a majority of votes, supporters viewed the outcome as a success. Donna Ticchi said, “As a small grass roots citizens-powered group we have been the underdog up against the World of Wellesley. Plus, we had less than one week’s time to share Article 43 with Town Meeting members, and not time at all to share it with the citizens of Wellesley. We note that WOW has had two years to advance their article. That Article 43 garnered as much support as it did speaks to the strength of our message of compromise, fairness and respect. Article 43 may have been defeated last night, but the ideas and the people behind it were not. Education is important. We believe that the polarization and exclusivity of replacing one heritage for another needs to be addressed broadly and with civility in our community. Voters need to learn more about these issues. We are organizing our next steps and remain positive about the way forward.”
The last speaker on the night, resident Odessa Sanchez, said “it never sat well we me that not enough voices were heard on this issue and I think it is so important for them to be heard.” She argued that this decision should not be rushed, should not be motivated by the death of George Floyd.
WOW’s Michelle Chalmers summed up the night this way: “The town of Wellesley has a lot of deep reflection to do after what transpired during Town Meeting. Our representative government was made meaningless and undermined by some people, who we elected to be our collective voice. A Citizen’s Petition, rooted in anti-racism and solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, was given a yes, and still it may never see justice. Thank you to everyone who engaged and supported this amazing effort. We stand strong together in love and peace, and we continue the work.”