Smyrna City Council members are facing criticism after letting the mayor block a Hispanic heritage event organized by volunteers seeking to promote the city’s cultural diversity.
Only two of the seven Council members voted in favor of overriding Mayor Max Bacon’s veto of a request to hold the event on Oct. 11, the same day as the city’s Casper’s Fall Fun Carnival. Maryline Blackburn and Susan Wilkerson voted Monday to overturn the veto; Derek Norton, Andrea Blustein, Charles Welch, Tim Gould and Ron Fennel sided with the mayor.
Bacon vetoed action taken Sept. 6 by the Council to close city streets to accommodate both events.
Celebrating October as Hispanic Heritage Month is the brainchild of the Smyrna United Task Force, a volunteer group of residents that promotes cultural, racial and ethnic diversity. The task force began discussing Hispanic Heritage Month in May and it was approved by city staff in July, City Administrator Tammi Saddler Jones said.
The mayor said he didn’t believe it was in the city’s “best interest” to have both events on the same day. Bacon said when the proposal was presented by city staff at a Council work session before the Sept. 6 meeting, he believed the City Council wasn’t given enough information about the logistics of holding the event on the same day as the fall festival. Bacon said he would support any future event celebrating Hispanic culture if it didn’t conflict with other city-sponsored festivities and if organizers can provide details about their proposal.
“The last thing I would ever do is do anything to offend any of my friends or anybody in the Latino community,” the mayor said.
However, Councilwoman Blackburn said the veto and her fellow elected officials’ support of Bacon’s decision is a “slap the face” to the city’s Hispanic residents and members of the task force. Blackburn said the proposal to hold the events on one day was proposed by task force members and city employees because the fall festival traditionally does not draw a “big attendance.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Smyrna has about 56,700 residents. Population estimates for 2018 show Smyrna’s white population was 45%, followed by African-American at 32%, Hispanic at 14% and American Indian, Pacific Islander, Asian and individuals identifying as two or more races making up the rest.
Blackburn said the city is “hungry for culture” and the Council should embrace the task force’s mission of bringing awareness to the different ethnic and racial groups that call Smyrna home.
“It’s disappointing that there are those individuals who do not feel that it’s important for this city to recognize and celebrate our diversity,” she said.
Task force member Pat Burns added she wasn’t surprised that the Council did not override Bacon’s veto since “most of them have not been very supportive of diversity and inclusion” in the city. Burns also said the Hispanic heritage event was proposed as a way to improve attendance to the Casper fall festival.
Council member Derek Norton said he believes the city should hold one large event celebrating the city’s diversity because one event for each group “may take away from the other.” He also said elected officials, task force members and city residents all agree that celebrating Smyrna’s diversity is a priority, but there’s a difference of opinion in how it should be approached.
Councilwoman Andrea Blustein said she believed Bacon’s veto wasn’t done out of spite. She also said it would be better to hold the events on different days because they are not related. In the future, Councilman Tim Gould said he’d like better communication from city staff to make sure task force members are better prepared when pitching events to the city.
“They have a lot of good stuff going on, and they deserve some effective communication from the city to make sure they are successful,” Gould said.
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