The topic of memorial benches and what will and will not be accepted on town property came up after controversy surrounding a bench which was placed without town staff’s permission in Elkin Municipal Park memorializing a toddler who died in a motor vehicle accident. The bench was removed by town staff since permission had not been granted for its placement, according to Town Manager John Holcomb.
Following a town meeting in December, during which 11 members of the public spoke about the issue, the Elkin Board of Commissioners voted to put a moratorium on any new memorials until a policy could be developed to address the situation.
Adam McComb, recreation and parks director, has been working with Town Attorney Raymond “Scooter” Parker and the recreation and parks advisory committee on the development of a policy. At Friday’s board retreat, McComb addressed the board, presenting two or three options and asking for input on how the commissioners want to handle future memorial requests so he would know how to proceed with a final policy.
“This may be one of the more emotional topics up for today. Adam and his group has done a good job preparing for it,” said Holcomb as he introduced the topic for discussion. “What we would like to do is take away any additional ideas you have and work on it, and then bring it back to the March board meeting.”
McComb provided a visual of the two styles of benches now used in the park and along the trails, one a bench with a back and a small recognition plaque in the top right corner of the back, and another a granite bench with just a seat. The wooden-style benches are made by prisoners in Raleigh.
In preparing a donation policy, he said he researched and looked at 15 other policies from around the nation. “The one I ended up with is Surry County’s format,” said McComb. “We want to encourage people to give to the town, but one of the main things I’ll repeat throughout the day is ‘specific needs.’ They may offer things we may not need.”
The bench placed in the park in December did not fit the style of benches already used in the park and on the trails. Instead it was a metal bench with cutouts of the toddler’s name and a Bible verse.
Prior to the incident in December, those interested in making a donation would approach McComb and he would work with them on getting the bench ordered and made, and then work with them on getting a 3×8-inch bronze plaque for the bench, which would state “Donated by,” “In Honor of,” “In Memory of,” or “Dedicated to.” This is the status quo, or what McComb presented as how the town has been handling donations for years, and it has not included any additional writing on the plaques, he said.
He also presented the board with a “less stringent” policy option which was similar to the “status quo” in the design of the bench would be the same as what is now used but it also allowed for three additional lines of text which totaled about five or six words. But in this case, all text which McComb didn’t feel comfortable with, whether it be religious, vulgar, hate groups, for example, would be required to have approval from the board of commissioners.
A third option he presented would be an “open” policy, which would mean the commissioners would have to approve everything before it was allowed to be donated, including the design of the bench and the text on it.
In addressing the donations policy, McComb said the staff also decided the policy needed to address athletic field signage and works of art in the town, since there was no written policy on that either.
“Some of this you’re going over is common sense, but you’re saying this is the first time it’s ever been a written policy,” said Commissioner Terry Kennedy.
McComb said once the policy is in place, those wishing to make a donation will get a copy of the policy and the application for a donation at the same time.
Commissioner Dr. Skip Whitman said he would be open to allowing anyone to put anything they wish on their plaques which wasn’t vulgar or derogatory.
Commissioner Bob Norton agreed with Whitman to allow “whatever they want to put on a 3×8 plaque as long as it’s not vulgar.”
But Parker, the attorney, explained if it is made open, then it has to be completely open. “If you say ‘as long as,’ that’s censorship. It’s not freedom of religion, it’s freedom of speech.”
The example was used of a town in Arizona which opened its meetings with a moment of silence and a prayer, and it quit because satanists requested to come in and do the same.
McComb said the park is rented to anyone, but those are temporary rentals. The donation policy wouldn’t just be the park either, it also would include the farmers market, ball fields, town-owned trails.
Kennedy clarified, “You can’t tell them no once you allow it.”
“My point is it’s a 3×8 plaque. If someone wants to put ‘I love Satan,’ then don’t sit on that bench if you don’t like it,” said Whitman. “I can walk past that bench every day and not sit there.”
But he said to draw the line at profanity.
Parker said, “If you want to set a policy that allows for freedom of expression, then you can’t censor it.
“The town of King put a flag pole up with a Christian flag, they had a lottery and 98 percent of those who won the lottery chose to fly the Christian flag. They were sued again, and they had to write a check for half a million dollars to the person who sued them,” he said.
“Can we limit it to just names?” asked Norton.
McComb said that’s what the town staff has been doing for years.
“It opens up too many possibilities,” Norton said of having an open policy.
“We’ve been doing the status quo since 2002, it’s just not been written down,” said McComb. “This is not going to stop someone from putting something in the park overnight.”
Kennedy said, “So we’re not in favor of freedom of speech or religious liberty because we’re afraid of the consequences. I disagree with that.”
But Commissioner Cicely McCulloch said a religious person likely would be offended if other stuff which was not Christian was allowed in the park.
Parker also clarified that having a religious institution’s name on a plaque as the donor, or on a sports team’s T-shirt as the sponsor, “is not a statement or expression, it is just the name of an organization.”
Norton also asked if the new policy would include a statement that anything left on town property without permission would be removed. McComb said it will.
The policy also addresses donated items being removed when they become damaged or in disrepair, Parker said.
No formal approval of the policy was given during the retreat. Following the discussion, during which it appeared the board is favoring the status quo version of the donation policy, McComb said the staff would put together a finalized version of the policy and present it to the board at its March meeting.
He noted the recreation and parks advisory committee did approve recommending the status quo version of the policy.
The commissioners will hold their next monthly meeting on March 14 at 6 p.m., a new meeting time.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.