NORWALK, Conn. — Two Rowayton residents say they weren’t allowed to vote in a recent Sixth Taxing District election held to resolve a flap over the posting of a Black Lives Matter sign on a community fence.
“I was disappointed at not being able to cast a ballot on the 13th. So was my 86-year-old mother. We are unable to attend to such things in person due to her age and some of my medical conditions and Covid-19,” Clare Schoenwald wrote.
Schoenwald provided email exchanges to show that she requested a ballot and was assured – twice – that it would be sent the morning of the vote, Jan. 13.
“On the morning of and throughout the day, neither of us received this email. I checked our inboxes, spam and junk folders. Nothing,” Schoenwald said.
Andrea Woodworth, who, according to the emails provided, promised to send ballots, did not respond to an email asking if they were authentic or how many other people might have asked for ballots without getting them. Nor did Sixth Taxing District Commissioners Tamsen Langalis, Mike Barbis and John Igneri.
More than 600 Rowayton residents cast ballots in the Jan. 13 vote concerning rules for the Old School Fence, where Jane Seymour posted a Black Lives Matter sign in July only to see it vandalized with the words, “Who cares?” It was replaced, only to be vandalized again, this time with “All Lives Matter,” resident Priscilla Feral said.
Seymour posted a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $160 for a new sign. She raised that and more, resulting in a donation of more than $5,000 to The Carver Foundation of Norwalk. The nonprofit works with Norwalk Public Schools to close opportunity gaps and help youth graduate high school ready for college and careers.
Even so, the Taxing District refused to allow the replacement sign, the original having already exceeded the normal two-week posting period. The commissioners also characterized the sign as political, outside the parameters for messages posted on the community fence.
The commissioners’ ruling sparked a months-long campaign for a rule change. Residents Rob Pratt and Lauren Henry put much energy into a detailed proposal that included a requirement for 100 signatures in favor of a sign like “Black Lives Matter” for it to go on the venerable community messaging board the fence has been for decades.
While that proposal was at the forefront of several Taxing District meetings it didn’t make its way onto the ballot, despite a 6TD email advertising it as late as Jan. 7. Commissioners announced 49 hours before the vote that it had been withdrawn – the options had been increased from two to three, then dropped back to two.
The first option was to keep the rules as-is. The second was to keep the rules but allow the Black Lives Matter sign to remain on the wall for a year.
Pratt and Henry did not reply to request for comment. Their proposal had been criticized for its “cumbersome requirement.” Some felt the 100-signature requirement was too cumbersome, and that it didn’t reflect the petition that started the effort in July. It’s suggested that Pratt and Henry withdrew their proposal for being less supportive of Black Lives Matter than the third option: an affirmative statement that the sign be reposted for a year.
The withdrawal of the second option came after a six-week effort to persuade residents to vote for it, a resident said. Confused? So were others, according to Schoenwald, who said people were arguing on social media whether there were three options, two or one, she said.
“I believed last minute decisions to pare down the vote to all or nothing choices which further put people off or confused the matter,” she wrote.
That last minute option two (formerly option three) wasn’t even worded the way it was proposed by supporters but was changed by the Commissioners, one resident said.
The only Black woman speaking up through the controversial process often complained that the Commissioners were holding a vote during a pandemic. The Commissioners promised a vote by email.
Langalis provided this breakdown:
- 382 votes were cast in person:
- 286 for option 1, no sign
- 96 for option 2, allowing the sign to be up for a year
- 259 votes were cast by email:
- 152 for option 1, no sign
- 107 for option 2, allowing the sign to be up for a year
- A total 641 ballots:
- 438 for option 1, no sign
- 203 for option 2, allowing the sign to be up for a year
Schoenwalk first asked for ballots on Jan. 7 and was told on Jan. 8 that they’d be coming, her emails show. She asked again on Jan. 12 and was assured they’d be sent the next day.
“I’m really not quite sure how I would have eventually voted,” she wrote. “I believe in keeping our small community small and that our community fence should be for the things within our town. But Black Lives Matter has hit home for me. It is one of those issues that is not just political, but is also a social issue. It speaks to the heart of acceptance and a true sense of community for all. We pride ourselves in a strong community in Rowayton. So I think it makes us a bit hypocritical if we don’t allow a voice of members of our town to be expressed. And to embrace the message of Black Lives Matter and welcome the message of ONE community for all. So I think, in the end, I would have voted to allow the BLM Sign to appear on the community fence.”