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Council members oppose — and mayor defends — gay pride proclamation

Laura Bannister looks on as Mayor Barbara Volks reads a proclamation declaring June 15 Hendersonville Pride Day. Laura Bannister looks on as Mayor Barbara Volks reads a proclamation declaring June 15 Hendersonville Pride Day.

Minutes after Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk finished reading a proclamation declaring Hendersonville's first gay pride day on Thursday night, dozens of LGBT supporters spilled out into the parking lot of the City Operations Center. The boisterous celebration that followed went on for a half hour as the council continued its regular meeting inside.

The perception many had at that moment was that the proclamation represented the voice of the entire council — an official statement from the city. But four council members over the weekend sought to clarify how the proclamation originated and how it differs from a resolution, which is voted on by the council and does stand as the City Council's official position. They said they oppose singling out one group for a day.

The City Council members — Ron Stephens, Steve Caraker, Jeff Miller and Steve Caraker — all said the mayor never talked with them before she put the proclamation on the council agenda and that she declined to elaborate on why she agreed to the request to proclaim Hendersonville Pride Day this coming Saturday. To be sure, the proclamation had broad support in the council meeting room and beyond. It appeared that around two-thirds of those in attendance supported the pride day statement, and Volk received a standing ovation for it at a Democratic Party event Friday night. The rest of the council, however, said they oppose designating a day for the LGBT community and that they would oppose a designation for any other group.

"Barbara Volk acted alone. She didn’t consult any other member," Caraker said. "I found out 2 to 3 weeks ago from (City Clerk) Tammie Drake when I was picking up my mail. I’ve talked to Jeff and Ron,” who also said Volk never communicated with them. “She did this on her own. Nobody else felt this was a necessary thing to do."
“Why are you going to start singling out some groups for attention?” he said when asked why he opposed it. “I don’t know that it’s the government’s job to pick winners or losers and endorse certain lifestyles and ideologies. She didn’t bother to ask anybody about it and actually it’s created some heartburn for staff. John had to explain the difference between a proclamation and a resolution in an email."

Connet sent the message Friday afternoon.

"I have spoken to several employees who had questions regarding the proclamation that was issued last night," Connet wrote. "First, a mayoral proclamation is not the same thing as a resolution adopted by the entire City Council.  The proclamation serves as an official announcement, while a resolution serves as a definitive action by a governing body. The Mayor of Hendersonville has the authority to issue a proclamation without the approval of the full City Council and that is what occurred last night. The proclamation issued by the mayor, not voted on by City Council, simply stated that June 15, 2019 will be Hendersonville Pride Day. I know this proclamation is being discussed throughout our community and I want you to know in clear terms that this proclamation is simply an announcement and does not create any special privileges or rights for the party receiving the proclamation. If asked by the public please feel free to explain the difference between a proclamation and resolution."

Caraker and other council members say designating a day for the the LGBT community raises the potential for more designations for groups based on sexual orientation or ideology.

"When you know it’s a hot button issue, I think common sense says you just generally stay away from it," Caraker said. “She probably thinks she did the right thing. This didn’t accomplish anything but give a small group some recognition. All this really did was drive a wedge in the county. Maybe that’s what their goal was. But if that’s what their goal was that’s a shame.”

Stephens said he questioned Volk in the days before the council meeting.

"I was very opposed to it," said Mayor pro tem Ron Stephens. "I talked to her and sent her an email and she gave me a response that didn’t make any sense to me."

All four council members emphasized that they support the rights of the LGBT community.

"I don’t discriminate against them, I have hired them, they have worked for me over the years, I have cousins that are gay and they are included in all family activities. We don’t ever discriminate against them," Stephens said. "But I just don’t think that is something that reflects the standards of Hendersonville to come out and celebrate what people do in their private life. ... I’ve gotten more emails about this than anything and 90 percent of them are opposed to it and question why the council allowed her to do that.”
Stephens praised Connet for sending out the email to city employees.
“I thought it was good for him to do that because I think it explains the situation as it stands now,” he said. “We’re going to try to keep it from happening again. I hope the story says that on the council we were not asked to approve that or had any power to approve and that we were opposed.”

Smith said the proclamation and blowback has triggered a need to look at whether the mayor and individual council members ought to have the unilateral authority to introduce proclamations.

“Barbara did not ask us for any input on this,” he said. “We currently have a policy which allows a member of council, whether the mayor or not, to make a proclamation when they would like to and a person can do this on their own without the consent of the council. It’s confusing to the general public because we also do something called a resolution, which is what we all vote on and has the effect of being statement of policy for the city of Hendersonville. But the average person does not see a distinction between the two. As a result of this we’re going to look at this whole policy and determine how we as a council need to handle basically the public statements that are attributed to us as a body."

Like the other council members, Smith was careful to express support for the lesbian and gay community.

“I certainly agree with most if not all the wording of the proclamation with regard to protecting (LGBT) individuals’ rights but I would not have designated a Hendersonville Pride Day just like I would not have designated any other day” for separate groups. "I just don’t feel the necessity to designate a day for LGBT individuals or for straight individuals. I don’t think that’s a role for the Hendersonville City Council."

Stephens said he supports a policy change.

"We are working on this to get it where she or future mayors can’t issue a proclamation without the majority of the city council approving it," he said.

Miller sees the precedent causing trouble down the road.

“What happens when White Supremacy Day comes up?” he said. “To me this opens up a can of worms, and it also creates this thing when we’re speaking for the whole city. What I saw created in all that was anger and dissension among people. I’d much rather do things that show where we’re together as opposed to how we’re different. I understand the gay community has every right and responsibility that I do and I agree with that 100 percent. No one should be discriminated against because of who they love. I would not have voted for a straight pride day or a traditional family pride day either. ... This isn’t about fighting them. It’s creating a situation that could snowball. ... It really should be voted on like a resolution. Nobody was asked about it before the mayor did it.”

Volk defended her decision to move forward with the proclamation and said she would oppose action by the council to remove that power from the mayor and individual council members.

"No, I would not agree with that. We have always done proclamations over the years, long before I was mayor, so I would hate to see us stop that." Mayoral proclamations have celebrated 100th birthdays, anniversaries of civic organizations and declared months to fight "all different diseases." "It's a way of supporting different groups and individuals and organizations and communities," she said.

She said she doesn't regret granting the proclamation request.

"At this point it is still fine for me to offer a proclamation and that's what I did. I believe very strongly in separation of church and state and the city is a secular organization and all of the arguments I have heard (against gay pride day) are religious and it's just not something that should have a direct influence" on the city's action. "They made a legitimate request that was not illegal. I could not justify to myself why I would say no, other than (that) people would be upset, and that's not a good enough reason. ... Nobdy has given me a reason that I consider reasonable."

She's heard both support and opposition.

"I've had both," she said. "I've had people who thanked me. I had one woman who came up to me in tears and said it meant so much to her and her daughter who is gay that she would not feel like a second class citizen any more." She said she's open to hearing from people who object to the proclamation. "I'd be very happy to hear a reason why I shouldn't have done it other than a religious reason."

Laura Bannister, who led the effort for the mayoral proclamation and stood beside Volk as she read it, said she had not of the council members’ opposition.

“I am surprised,” she told the Lightning on Sunday. “I would think they would want what is best for all of Henderson County or all of Hendersonville. I have gotten so much wonderful feedback in the past couple of days, mostly from young people who have told me that they know of somebody whose life has been saved because of this.” The young people have described friends that are depressed or suicidal, she said, because they felt unsupported or isolated in their hometown.
Karl Silverman, a member of the LGBT Democrats, drafted the proclamation, she said.
Council members, she added, have a right to express opposition to the proclamation.
“That’s fine. It’s a majority Republican City Council anyway,” she said. “I would expect nothing less.”

(Smith is unaffiliated while Miller, Stephens and Caraker are Republicans; Volk is a Democrat.)

Smith acknowledged that in today's world, the issue of recognizing a group that has suffered from discrimination presents a difficult conversation.

"I have several emails on both sides of the issue," he said. "Most if not all emails have been courteous and polite in arguing their point of view. I think for me it’s a difficult issue that our culture is facing and I respect that people on both sides of the issue have very deeply felt opinions and are very emotional about this. I don’t want anyone to think that I take anyone’s opinion lightly even if I disagree with them. We understand this is very important to a lot of people.”