Rensselaerville Town Board takes no action to denounce Confederate flag 

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Rensselaerville supervisor John Dolce, right, speaks with resident and demonstrator John Arrighi before the town board's Oct. 8 regular meeting. Arrighi and a small group of others, including Evan Place, left, had gathered in front of the town hall with signs denouncing racism and the flag. Arrighi's sign read, "Racism is our original pandemic."

RENSSELAERVILLE — The Rensselaerville Town Hall received a rare crush of visitors on Oct. 8, most of whom were present to share their thoughts on the Confederate flag after Medusa resident April Roggio approached the town board last month requesting that it denounce — not ban — the flag, which is displayed prominently on the garage of her neighbor, Lane Stannard.

Roggio and her supporters view the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate, regardless of the intentions of those who choose to display it. Stannard, 20, told The Enterprise last month that he flies the flag as proof of his freedom and as a “statement that it’s [his] house.”

Those at the meeting who disagreed with Roggio — a rank that included the Stannard family as well as residents of nearby towns — argued that the flag doesn’t represent racism, that a government entity shouldn’t issue a decree on what amounts to free speech, and/or that a dispute between neighbors should remain private, rather than play out in a public forum. 

Fourteen people sat in the meeting room gallery, while several more attendees had to wait in the hallway or outside as they came one-by-one into the room to make their points before the board. Attendees from other Hilltowns included Dotty Verch, of Westerlo, and James Bushnell, of Berne, both of whom spoke against a denunciation of the flag.

At least 15 people spoke about the flag, seven of whom were in favor of Roggio’s request, including Roggio and her husband, Jason Caprio. Two more people had written letters in support of a denunciation of the flag, and Roggio referenced an online petition that as of Oct. 12 has 129 signatures from people who wish to see the flag condemned by the Rensselaerville board. 

Before the meeting, a group of at least four people stood outside the town hall with signs that decried the flag and racism. During the meeting, after audience comments were delivered, perhaps a dozen or more people remained outside the town hall in a number of clusters, almost all of whom seemed to be pleased that the board did not take action against the flag.

Awareness of the matter had spread in part through Enterprise coverage, but mostly through Facebook, where various discussions occurred on personal Facebook profiles and group pages.

At both the Oct. 8 meeting and Sept. 24 meeting, the five-member Rensselaerville town board resisted the idea of passing a resolution that would infringe on free speech. At the beginning of the Oct. 8 meeting, Supervisor John Dolce and Deputy Supervisor Jason Rauf each read statements that condemned racism, but celebrated the right of residents to project their beliefs and disagree with each other.

Ultimately, no action was taken, and despite his language at the Sept. 24 meeting, which strongly suggested that the board would at least consider a resolution similar to what Roggio requested, Dolce said that the board never intended to hold any kind of vote on the matter.

“What we’ve accomplished here ... is nothing, except to say we recognize that there is a divide,” Dolce said in between residents’ statements. “And I can’t say, ‘You have to talk to you, you have to talk to you, you have to talk to you.’ We [the town board] can’t say that. That’s none of our business. If you don’t want to get along with your neighbors, hey, it’s your neighbors. It’s not my neighbors. My neighbors, if we have a problem, we talk. And that’s what I’m trying to get at as the point of this, is to talk.”


Town board statements

Dolce and Rauf each read their prepared statements about racism before residents were allowed to speak and would each restate certain points throughout the meeting as residents continued to pressure them for more specific action.

“It’s not the function of the town board to make public or private comments about the private property or free speech rights of any resident of the town of Rensselaerville,” Dolce said in his statement. “Rensselaerville is a quintessential small American town where diversity [of people] as well as diversity of opinion are not only tolerated but encouraged. It is the American way. 

“This board denounces racism, hatred, and all un-neighborly actions,” Dolce went on. “This is our neighborhood. We’re all neighbors. Good neighbors respect each other and their spaces, good neighbors look out for each other and solve problems between themselves, and live in peace and harmony. Communicate with your neighbor and help set good examples for the children that see what’s going on.” 

Rauf’s statement did more to address the specifics of the flag, and he indicated that he does not support its message and that he would be “unwilling” to display the flag on his own property. Still, he said, the flag is protected under free speech and debate over what’s acceptable free speech is a debate he’ll “leave … to Washington.”

“I support a resolution that denounces racism,” Rauf said in the second half of his statement, “but I’m not willing to go as far as denouncing the flying of the Confederate flag. That being said, what does it accomplish? Does it stop racism? If so, we would have done it long ago. Would a resolution that denounces the Confederate flag stop Lane Standard from flying his flag? I believe the answer is no. In fact, I believe it would do the opposite and instead embolden him to fly it higher. 

“We as a people often turn to government to solve these complicated issues that no government can effectively fix,” Rauf went on. “The problem will only be solved in the way we conduct our everyday lives. Whether in church or at a grocery store or in a family member’s home, we must all strive to take a higher road and denounce the evil of racism. I’m sure not everyone will agree with my opinion and I respect that. After all, it is the ability to express different opinions freely that has made us the greatest nation in the world.”


Condemnation of the flag

The informal denunciations of racism from Dolce and Rauf did little to appease Roggio’s supporters, with Roggio herself calling the statements “anemic.” 

“We came last week and we asked you for something pretty simple,” Roggio told the board. “And then The Enterprise reported on it, and the vitriol exploded. All because we asked if you would condemn a symbol of hate. So, John, I could only half-hear from the hallway what you had to say, but I guess, just know that I’m not going away. I thought I made that clear last week. 

“ … I don’t know where this leaves us,” Roggio went on, “other than for me to suggest that those ‘undereducated’ that you spoke of last week, Councilman Rauf, perhaps need more of a voice. So I have suggested now for over a year that we talk about having community day. And I was told my issues are miniscule. It seems like now would be a good time to engage in some listening sessions. Perhaps we figure out a way to speak to each other … because this isn’t a good outcome.”

Roggio, who has a doctorate in public administration from the University at Albany, redesigned the Medusa General Store last year as a space for weekly community gatherings and other events with the ultimate purpose of fostering discourse. Meetings have been stymied, however, by the coronavirus pandemic.

John Arrighi, who was demonstrating outside before the meeting, was among the group that supported a denunciation of the flag, going so far as to submit his own draft resolution to the board, which was read aloud by Dolce later on in the meeting and which, in essence, stated that the board condemned racism and bigotry and therefore the Confederate flag. Dolce’s reading was meant for reference and was not part of a motion introducing that resolution.

“I just want to say that I’ve had a lot of conversations… with folks, many of whom disagreed with me,” Arrighi told the board, “and I realized that a lot of the disagreement comes from the fact that some people see this as a freedom-of-speech issue, and I do not. And that many of us do not. I and no one I know is requesting any sort of ban or prohibition on anything that anyone can display on their private property. 

“But we’ve been dealing with issues of racism for over 400 years in this country,” Arrighi went on, “and I feel that individuals and organizations are at a point where we all need to make a statement about what we believe is appropriate in our nation and in our communities. And I think that any organization, especially a government that has a leadership role like this, can make a statement that will get some attention and maybe get some people to look at what they’re doing and why it may not be as innocent as they would like to make it out to be.  

“We have a long history in this country of having whitewashed the history of the treatment of people of color,” Arrighi said, “and that is, I believe, a good part of why the Confederate battle flag can be looked at as a symbol of pride or culture when that’s not what it is. It doesn’t take much research to understand what the Confederacy was about. So I’d just ask that the town council lead by example and make a statement about what is right and what is not so right in our beliefs about people who may not always look like us or sound like us.” 


Support for the flag

Lane Stannard’s mother, Tina Stannard, was one of the first at the meeting to defend her son’s choice to fly the flag, and stated that she was happy with the board’s denunciation of racism.

“Lane is not trying to cause division in our community at all,” Stannard said. “What started out as a small neighbor quarrel, I would say, turned into a much, much much bigger thing where he was called out in the public eye and had no choice but to leave the flag hanging. Had it not gotten this far, he probably would have taken it down if he was asked to. But he’s rebelling against particular people who were pushing at him. 

“I think the only division that has been caused in this town is caused by the people who are making it a public event,” Stannard went on. “I also don’t know where the racism is in our community. I’m sure there are people who are racist. There always are. I’m so happy you [the town board] denounce racism: as do I, as do my children. I don’t think there’s any hatred and racism in our community big enough to warrant an attack like this on our freedoms. I appreciate you guys very much, thank you.”

The most notable statement of support for the flag as an element of free speech came from an unidentified man who brought with him “The Federalist Papers,” by Alexander Hamilton, and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain, to drive home his points about constitutional rights and the danger of excessive bans.

“On December 27, 1977, I took an oath of enlistment with the United States Marine Corps,” the man said. “And I took an oath that said I would defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And to my knowledge, that oath has not expired. I understand the sensibilities behind the resolution that’s been drafted … And I understand the sentiment and where people are coming from. In this day and age, what this gentleman is doing may not seem a good idea, let’s put it that way. But he has the right to do it.

“ … The very fact that a body of governance would take up that kind of rhetoric against one individual is exactly what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was designed to protect against,” the man went on. “So I wanted to put that out there. You see a lot of things that evolve through political correctness. But I brought two books with me. One of my favorite books is ‘The Federalist.’ I’ve read this a few times, particularly because it was required reading in my constitutional law class. This is the genesis of the Constitution as we know it.

“What I [also] brought is ‘Huck Finn,’” the man said. “This is an example of one of the most brilliant commentaries on racism and it was written more than 100 years ago by one of our greatest writers that this country has ever produced, Mark Twain. And a couple of years ago it was starting to be banned in our public schools and our libraries because it used the word ‘nigger.’ 

“...Banning books like this — this was actually a commentary against racism,” the man said. “And it was brilliant, and it was in the hearts and minds of children for a century. I read this book, too. And when we start saying we’re going to ban this and we’re going to ban that, that becomes a crack in the foundation.”

During the meeting, The Enterprise spoke with Maria Wood, a supporter of free speech who was among the group that had gathered outside. 

“As soon as they start taking your rights away, it starts with one,” Wood said. “And then everything that was fought for hundreds of years ago is gone. You can’t get any more simple than that. They’re teaching our kids about socialism in schools? I’m sorry.

“If I had children in school now, they’d be homeschooled. Because my mother and father grew up under socialism. It’s not nice. You want socialism so bad? Go to Venezuela. See how they like it. They were one of the richest countries. They were a beautiful country. Look at them now. It took 10 years to get there.” 


Enterprise veracity

During the meeting, Dolce criticized The Enterprise for paraphrasing him as saying during the Sept. 24 meeting that he would draft a resolution in time for the Oct. 8 meeting, calling the report false.

Any time a reader has a valid concern about the veracity of an article, The Enterprise will issue a correction, clarification, or update that appears online and in the next print edition of the paper.  

“I said — and the newspaper reported incorrectly once again, because that’s not written law — I said give me two weeks to come up with a statement,” Dolce said at the Oct. 8 meeting. “I didn’t say give me two weeks to come up with a resolution. And everybody thinks that the town board is going to come up with a resolution to solve this problem.”

While Dolce did use the word “statement” instead of “resolution” in the Sept. 24 meeting, which The Enterprise recorded, the words had been used interchangeably that night, just as Rauf used the word “resolution” in place of “statement” in his racism address, partially quoted above. 

After Roggio made her request of the board on Sept. 24, Dolce asked, “I don’t get the request. To pass a resolution that’s —”

“Sure,” Roggio interjected. “Make a public resolution. Say, ‘This board hereby states that [displaying the Confederate flag] is wrong; this is morally corrupt. We do not support —’”

“We don’t support, April, but it’s totally illegal,” Dolce said. “We can’t do that.”

“All she’s asking for is a statement,” Rauf explained. “A statement that says we condemn the Confederate flag. She’s not asking us to pass a law that says you can’t fly the flag. And I think we all do condemn the flag. It’s just that — or, we condemn racism, anyway. There’s not a single racist that sits on this board ....”

“So is that what you’re asking of the board?” Dolce asked Roggio. “To pass a statement?”

“Yes,” Roggio said. “I am well aware that you cannot ban and I have said now repeatedly that I do not support banning flags. But I do think it’s up to our community to express our sentiments that this is inappropriate and that we do not support racism.”

“So now you have to give me two weeks,” Dolce said. “Because I can’t do it now.”

Dolce, who has rarely answered Enterprise inquiries in the past year, could not be reached for discussion about his language or his concerns with prior Enterprise reporting, but it’s possible that Dolce was not familiar with the distinction between a local law and a resolution. 

“A resolution is a means by which a governing body or other board expresses itself or takes a particular action,” reads the New York State Local Government Handbook. “Unlike local laws and ordinances, which can be used to adopt regulatory measures, resolutions generally cannot be used to adopt regulatory measures.” 

A local law, meanwhile, is “the highest form of local legislation, since the power to enact a local law is granted to local governments by the State Constitution,” according to the handbook. “In this respect, a local law has the same quality as an act of the State Legislature, since they both are exercises of legislative power accorded by the State Constitution to representative bodies elected by the people.”

Rauf was therefore correct in characterizing Roggio’s requested resolution as a “statement,” as resolutions can exist merely to formalize an idea. For example, censures, which are public condemnations of officials, are resolutions, not laws, but must still be passed by a board vote. 

Earlier this year, the Berne Town Board adopted a resolution that made the town a Second Amendment sanctuary by name only. Resolutions were also the means by which Berne, Knox, and Westerlo protested the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act in 2013.

A statement by a board member, meanwhile, is legally informal and not subject to a board vote.  At the Sept. 24 meeting, as Dolce was trying to understand Roggio’s request, he used the phrases “pass a resolution” and “pass a statement,” both of which imply a board vote. In the end, on Oct. 8, the board had no vote and took no stance; rather, two individuals — the supervisor and deputy supervisor — shared their own views in statements.

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