When he voided a $24,750 town check to a museum that flies a Confederate flag earlier this month, the mayor of a small southern Delaware town assumed the heated controversy over the grant would subside — at least for the time being.
But Georgetown Mayor Bill West’s hope that the grant was “dead in the water” soon turned to disappointment.
That’s because three other council members banded together, first procuring and signing a new check, and then delivering it to Jim Bowden, president of the Georgetown Historical Society.
Since 2007, the society’s Marvel Carriage Museum has displayed an outdoor monument dedicated to Delawareans who served the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the rebel flag flies above the 12-foot-tall white granite slab.
Critics have called on the museum to remove the flag or at least move it indoors, saying the symbol of racism, hate, and division has no place on public display. They also urged the council not to approve the grant. Similar concerns had led the state in 2019 to eliminate an annual $14,400 grant to the museum, so this year the society turned to the town for funding.
West, who did not join his four council colleagues in approving the grant in July, said the town’s attorney, Stephani Ballad, had urged them to rescind it early this month. That occurred after the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice pointed out that the money was authorized in violation of town law because the application was received after the April 1 deadline and never evaluated by a committee of town officials before being submitted to council.
Yet three council members – Angela Townsend, Sue Barlow, and Penuel Barrett — ignored that advice, according to the mayor.
No council members are Black. West, Townsend, Barlow, and Barrett are white and Christina Diaz-Malone is Latina.
West said he contacted Ballard when he learned from town manager Gene Dvornik about what the council members were doing.
“I discussed it with her and I said, ‘If they want to go against your word, they’re just creating problems for themselves,’’’ West told WHYY News.
The check was delivered to Bowden on August 11, and the society cashed it that day.
Now the alliance has a new complaint – that the three council members violated the Freedom of Information Act by effectively holding a meeting of a quorum of the council — three of five members — to get and deliver the check, without providing advance notice to the public.
Tom Irvine, a retired attorney who volunteers for the alliance and filed the complaints, says the money should never have been paid.
“What should happen, of course, is the museum presumably knows about this problem, and they should give the money back,’’ Irvine said.
“If you get a check out of the blue from the government or from somebody that has not really lawfully been given to you, you can’t cash it and say, ‘Ha ha, the state of Delaware sent me a million dollars. I’m keeping it.’ You can’t do that … If they dont pay it back, the council members need to pay it back themselves.”
Bowden did not return calls from WHYY News this week.
Mayor says Georgetown ‘going down a wrong road’
So instead of settling the matter at its meeting this week, the museum’s flag and the actions of Townsend, Barrett, and Barlow took center stage during a contentious two-hour session.
West told the audience Monday at a town hall that he anticipated litigation over the matter.
“I’m sorry the town’s in this position,’’ West said. “We are going down a wrong road that people are laughing at us. So it hurts. You can see that the businesses are not coming like they were. You can see that the developers are not talking to me about bringing businesses to this town because of what’s going on. And we’ve got to stop it and get our act together, or this town is going to be closed for business.”
Townsend, who took the lead in getting the check, defended her actions at the meeting, declaring that the July vote was a legal and legitimate one. Townsend added that most applications for grants in recent years were submitted past the April 1 deadline, and no one wants to rescind those awards. She said the garnering of the check with the two other council members did not amount to a quorum or a meeting because the three were never together.
Townsend said the grant will help the museum with needed repairs, and has nothing to do with the Confederate monument or flag.
“The Marvel museum has always been good to the town,’’ she said. “As we’ve stated before, we have numerous events out there. They’ve always helped us. We’ve always helped them.
“As far as the town being divided. I’ve had people come up to me in the store and say, ‘Continue the fight. How can I give money to keep the flag up? It’s a museum. That’s where the flag ought to be.’ But a lot of people say, it’s a museum, let’s put the flag inside so nobody has to look at it.”
“I even had somebody say, ‘Well, why don’t you put the flag in for six months and then bring it out again after the whole thing dies off.’”
Townsend, who is white, said she’s “sorry that people think of the flag as hatred. To me, it’s out there as a representation of the monument, the people in Delaware that fought. I’m not Black, so I don’t know. I’m not in your position.”
Her remarks angered Coby Owens of the state NAACP, who also spoke during the meeting. He said the grant is a disgrace to the state and the town of 7,300, where 15% of the population is Black and 40% is Latino.
“I’m here today to strongly oppose the funding of white supremacy here in Georgetown,’’ Owens said. “Ms. Townsend, you aren’t Black, so you don’t understand our struggle. You don’t understand what my ancestors went through. You don’t understand what that flag represents.”
“And by you pretty much passing us all off, it’s disrespectful. And it shows that you are incapable of doing your job as a councilperson and represent everyone who lives here. The idea that the flag represents anything other than hatred is false. It 100% represents hate.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.