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Councilors try to block statue talk

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Johnnie Walton

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Two Elizabeth City city councilors tried to block further consideration of the Project Zebra monument on Monday night, arguing the issue has become divisive and a distraction from more important issues.

In a 5-3 vote, City Council rejected Councilor Johnnie Walton’s motion to direct city staff, including City Manager Rich Olson, from spending any more time working on the monument. Voting in favor of the motion were Walton and Councilors Gabriel Adkins and Darius Horton.

Horton tried to go a step further, moving prior to Walton’s motion to block council consideration of the monument for six months. That wouldn’t have prevented public comment on the matter during meetings, but would have blocked further council action. The motion was determined by the city attorney to be out of order, however, and Horton withdrew it.

The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs proposed the monument last year to honor Allied veterans of World War II, including from the Soviet Union, and to recognize Project Zebra, a top-secret mission based in Elizabeth City that provided Soviet aviators with aircraft and training.

The Russian government is proposing to pay for the monument, drawing opposition from some councilors and some city residents. Council voted against an agreement for the monument last month.

Despite those objections, most of the citizen comment Monday night was in favor of the monument. One citizen, Rick Boyd, also presented a petition in support of the project that he said had been signed by more than 500 local residents.

Walton wasn’t swayed by the petition, however. He claimed it doesn’t prove a majority of city residents favor the project.

“I think if more people had thought that a petition would be signed, you know, other people probably would've had petitions signed, too,” Walton said.

Walton also claimed the monument had become a distraction, and that the city needs to come together on more pressing issues.

Horton agreed the monument had become divisive, and that the city needs to move on. To that effect, he made a motion to block council from reconsidering the monument for six months.

City Attorney Bill Morgan said the council's rules of procedure make such a motion valid only immediately after an issue is voted down. The motion would have been appropriate at the last council meeting but was out of order on Monday, he said.

Horton withdrew the motion.

That prompted Walton to move to direct city staff to not spend any more time on the issue.

“It's just ridiculous to be caught up in a monument when the city manager needs to tell us how to manage this $64 million budget we've got to deal with,” Walton said. “We don't need to come up here every week with petitions and the same people trying to change people's minds, thinking we are a weak council.”

The motion failed, with Councilors Jeannie Young, Billy Caudle, Anita Hummer, Rickey King and Kem Spence voting in opposition.

Spence argued Walton's motion would prevent the city manager from even discussing the monument with city residents. That will cause undue frustration and complaints about the manager, he said. 

“We can't make him not address the issues of the citizens,” Spence said.

Young and Hummer also raised concerns about trying to shut down discussion of the monument, arguing council should not appear dismissive or closed to citizens' concerns. Young also offered to talk with any city resident who wishes to discuss the issue.

Caudle continued to argue in support of the monument, issuing a “challenge” to citizens to learn more about Project Zebra before opposing it. He recommended the book “Project Zebra,” by MG Crisci.

Speaking after Walton’s motion, Adkins said many constituents had contacted him with views either favoring or opposing the monument. However, others have called him to say there are more pressing issues, such as high utility costs and road repairs.

“I feel we haven’t made progress,” Adkins said, adding he feels the issue has not only caused division but “hatred.”

Interviewed after the council meeting, Boyd said he felt the monument was becoming a “racial issue,” but it shouldn’t be. He was apparently alluding to the black city councilors and citizens speaking against the monument. Notably, King is black and in favor of the project.

Boyd also said he hoped to hold a public meeting about Project Zebra and the monument.

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