Proclamations are supposed to be an opportunity for Leesburg Town Council to put aside politics and honor local groups and individuals.
However, proclamations have become political for the past two council meetings after Councilman Tom Dunn wrote a sentiment instead of a signature on three different proclamations: one for National Gun Violence Awareness Day, another for LGBT Pride Month, and another for Juneteenth.
Dunn has since re-signed the three proclamations with his signature, but the Loudoun County chapter of the NAACP is calling for his resignation, and others are decrying his actions across social media.
“I’m furious. Absolutely furious,” said Mayor Kelly Burk. “I don’t want people to ever feel that they aren’t welcome in the town council.”
Moms Demand Action, Juneteenth
Elizabeth Coppage, local leader of the grassroots anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action, wasn’t surprised when she found that Dunn had written a message on the proclamation presented to her group on May 28: “People are violent Guns are not.”
Last year, Dunn wrote “I oppose all forms of violence” when Moms Demand Action received its first town proclamation for National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
“There is a misnomer that we are anti-Second Amendment…. All [National Gun Violence Awareness Day] does is honor victims and survivors,” Coppage said. “We are disappointed.”
Unlike other items of council business, a single council member can request for a proclamation to be added to the agenda. Council as a whole first sees proclamations the Wednesday before the following Tuesday’s meeting. If they do not approve, they can ask staff to remove their name from the proclamation.
Councilwoman Suzanne Fox and Councilman Josh Thiel asked to have their names removed from the National Gun Violence Awareness Day proclamation. Dunn did not.
Asked why he didn’t ask to have his name removed, Dunn said that he only reads the paper -- not the digital -- agenda packet and often doesn’t see the proclamations until shortly before council meetings.
Dunn added that his response is largely a reaction to fellow council members he believes are forcing their political stances upon the entire council.
“The council, I think, is taking more of an extremist or activist view,” he said. “Proclamations can be worded to honor any group or cause without being extremely political or take a position which other citizens may oppose.”
In the interim between its May 28 and June 11 meetings, council found out about Dunn’s action when a citizen wrote a public letter.
On June 11, with Dunn absent, Burk read a statement apologizing for Dunn’s action and said the town would issue a replacement proclamation to Moms Demand Action.
But in the hours leading up to the meeting, council discovered that Dunn had written messages on two proclamations slated for that night: LGBT Pride Month and a celebration of Juneteenth that included a line commemorating Loudoun lynching victim Orion Anderson.
Dunn did not object to the celebration of Juneteenth, but he did object to its being used to memorialize Anderson’s death, even though Dunn did vote to approve the memorials for all of Leesburg’s lynching victims. On that proclamation, he wrote, “Juneteenth is a celebration lynching is not.”
Staff immediately reprinted both proclamations but left Dunn’s signature line on both.
Dunn, seeking to clarify his position on June 19, said he believes there should be two proclamations -- one honoring Juneteenth and another memorializing the victims of lynching.
“I think that having a proclamation signed Juneteenth, which is supposed to be a proclamation of the freedom of slavery, and how that celebration has been done for 150-plus years, but then to go into a discussion of the evils of slavery and the evils of lynching – I think you diminish both topics by shadowing one with celebration, and the other should be a solemn observation,” Dunn said.
Charlotte McConnell, a steering committee member for Equality Loudoun, was excited when the Leesburg Diversity Commission told her that council would present her group with an LGBTQ Pride Month Proclamation on June 11. Equality Loudoun had not lobbied council for the proclamation, so it was a surprise.
However, when McConnell opened her proclamation, her excitement turned to outrage. Instead of a signature, she faced a short message on Dunn’s signature line: “Everyone is equal, identities don’t help.”
“For a publicly elected person to think that way, I just felt was pretty outrageous,” she said. “I wish everyone was equal, but that is not the reality we are living in.”
Unexpectedly, the proclamation McConnell received was signed by Councilman Thiel, not Dunn. Dunn was not present for the beginning of the June 11 meeting, and after staff reprinted the two proclamations, council had to re-sign both proclamations at the last minute. Dunn had asked Thiel to sign the proclamation for him, Thiel told the Times-Mirror.
“The council should not be engaged in bringing up issues that are specifically intended and known to create division,” Thiel told the Times-Mirror. He said during the meeting, “I think we’re all children of God, and I was raised to respect all people.”
Councilwoman Fox, in an effort to provide a proclamation the entire council could support, had asked staff to add to the packet a “Love Your Neighbor Month” that would be an alternate to Pride Month.
The “Love Your Neighbor Month” proclamation honored the town’s diverse population and encouraged residents not to discriminate against fellow residents for any reason.
“I felt the [Pride Month] proclamation does not accurately reflect the feelings and sentiments of the entire Leesburg community. Instead, it focuses on a specific demographic group,” Fox told the Times-Mirror. “I do not think it's healthy for us to continue to subdivide our population based on arbitrary attributes, and was therefore more comfortable with a less divisive and more inclusive proclamation showing respect and empathy for everyone, regardless of what community someone identifies with.”
Fox asked for a discussion and vote on the proclamation and got Councilman Josh Thiel as a second, but Burk said the discussion was out of order. Fox said on her Facebook page that she will attempt to pass the proclamation during council’s next business meeting.
In the days following the council meeting, citizens and council members took to social media to decry the messages on the proclamations, and on June 14 the NAACP gathered at Leesburg Town Hall to call for Dunn’s resignation.
Burk asked Dunn to re-sign all three proclamations with his signature, and he did so June 13.
To those calling for his resignation, Dunn said, “In no way [did I] violate the Town of Leesburg ethics policy. These calls for resignation are from the same people who seek to divide all of us ... I seek equality, freedom and non-violence from and by everyone.”
Neither Moms Demand Action nor Equality Loudoun sees the proclamations as entirely negative. After sharing an image of Dunn’s signature line, Equality Loudoun received $600 worth of donations for its “Big Gay Book Drive,” an effort to get more LGBTQ books into Loudoun County schools.
Council, meanwhile, will be discussing how it should handle proclamations in the future so none of this will happen again.
“People shouldn’t be harassed coming into a council meeting,” Burk said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct what Councilman Tom Dunn wrote on the anti-gun violence resolution.