The Loudoun chapter of the NAACP and Town of Leesburg, in spite of a few contentious moments, agreed to move toward a resolution during a special meeting Monday morning.
The NAACP asked to meet with council last month in the wake of Councilman Tom Dunn’s decision to write a message instead of his signature on a proclamation presented to NAACP President and Pastor Michelle Thomas in June.
At Monday's meeting with Vice Mayor Fernando “Marty” Martinez and Councilman Neil Steinberg, NAACP Vice President Amanda Tandy, Legal Redress Chair Buta Biberaj and Thomas called for council to take disciplinary action against Dunn.
“We need a good apology,” Thomas said. “Censure is not off the table.”
In the hours before Leesburg Town Council’s June 11 meeting, Councilman Ron Campbell discovered that Dunn had written “Juneteenth is a celebration lynching is not” on his signature line for a proclamation that honored both the emancipation holiday Juneteenth and the lynching of Leesburg teenager Orion Anderson in 1889.
Town Manager Kaj Dentler printed a clean copy of the proclamation but was not authorized to destroy the previous one. In the shuffle to sign the clean copy at the beginning of the June 11 council meeting, Mayor Kelly Burk gave Thomas and the descendants of Anderson the defaced version. Thomas discovered the mistake a couple of days later and was outraged.
“The reason why this proclamation is so hurtful to this community is what it was about … this 14-year-old kid,” she said, referencing Anderson. “To have Thomas Dunn reshape what this was all about was more than we could stand.”
Dunn has since apologized, but he maintains that he wrote the message as a protest to council for presenting what he believes are politically charged proclamations.
At the beginning of Monday's meeting, Biberaj emphasized how the NAACP wanted this to be the beginning of a “good relationship” with Leesburg, she said. She questioned why the entire council did not choose to meet with them and asked what council was doing to make sure this would never happen again.
Steinberg and town staff answered that council is currently working on a new proclamation policy and is set to vote on it Tuesday. Council will also be visiting its ethics policy at the Sept. 9 meeting.
Thomas took a more aggressive stance, criticizing Burk for not voting to censure Dunn and intimating that a lawsuit against the town was not off the table: “We are still considering how to move forward … [Leesburg’s response] leaves us in a real precarious situation in terms of our relationship with the town.”
“First Amendment rights are so strong that things need to be more concrete,” Town Attorney Barbara Notar said about council’s hesitance to censure Dunn.
Council members on other town councils, Notar said, have filed First Amendment-based lawsuits after a censure. “If there is stronger language in the ethics policy, the council could feel more comfortable with action,” she added.
Steinberg emphasized the unexpected nature of Dunn’s action, saying that council’s top commitment is to make sure this never happens again.
“The idea of censure, I think, is a valid one,” Steinberg said. “This is still going to take a vote of four.”
Thomas also asked for council to beef up the town’s memorandum of agreement with the NAACP. Currently, the police reports to the NAACP when race-based issues arise, and Thomas would like something similar with council. Steinberg asked the NAACP to draft an MOU that he could bring to council, and Thomas agreed.