At last week’s New Paltz Town Board meeting, members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post spoke in favor of all town boards and committees having the Pledge of Allegiance on their agendas, but were politely told that a resolution to do so would carry no legal weight. While they took the news in stride and suggested they would instead visit the Planning Board directly, the veterans apparently decided that they wanted the Town Board to take action. Council member Jeff Logan pushed to have the matter discussed as an agenda item for the first time, and after a lengthy discussion on the nature of freedom they voted 4-1 not to impose the new requirement on volunteer boards and commissions.
VFW commander Carl Conboy read from comments on the post’s Facebook page, including one from a “Stephen G” that Conboy characterized as a “rant,” and others that spoke of protection from veterans and comparing the recitation with hand over heart to a Nazi salute. He also touched upon the phrase “under God,” which carries its own controversies with it, and recited the entire history of the Pledge’s wording, starting with the version written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian minister who did not include any religious reference in his original.
“We’re again asking for a resolution,” Conboy said, not to force people to recite the Pledge or even stand during it, but simply to place it on the agendas of each of the town’s boards and commissions. Other towns have passed such a resolution, including Montgomery and Shawangunk.
Ira Margolis told board members, “If you vote not to let something happen, that’s a ban,” referring to the controversial decision by Planning Board members not to add the Pledge to their own agenda. He was also skeptical of the idea that Town Board members exercised no control, because they appoint the members. “We had no problem reciting it on the police commission,” he said.
With a line of veterans standing in the back of the room looking on, Logan got his fellow board members to agree to discuss the issue, but they addressed virtually everything else first. Town Supervisor Neil Bettez said he wanted to work on issues first for which town employees were in attendance, but the board took up several issues that didn’t fit that criterion, as well, including a law to change when the town’s annual tax grievance day occurs, and a full recitation of an agreement about what roads will be paved in the town this year.
Logan, when the issue finally came up, said that his idea “won’t force people to say the Pledge — that was never part of what I proposed — it will just require that it be placed on their agendas, which has been upheld by the courts for the schools.” No one would be forced to stand or speak, and the members of a particular board could vote to remove it if they so chose.
Julie Seyfert-Lillis did suggest that making a decision on the matter might be premature, as it had only been just placed on the agenda and most board members had not studied the question fully. That led to a tirade by veteran Leonard Balou, who claimed that it was “old business” because it had been discussed previously, and on that justification action should be taken that very night. In fact, while the issue had been raised, it was only as part of public comment, and not as an agenda item. He also tore into Logan, apparently not understanding that this was the only council member unambiguously in support of reciting the Pledge at all meetings in the town.
Bettez thought it would be better to organize a public dialogue, giving veterans and others with strong feelings the opportunity to educate other community members about why they believe the pledge should be part of civic life in that way. “Maybe after that dialogue, they will want to say it.”
Logan, however, dismissed that. “We were elected to represent the community and enact policy,” he said. “I want to make a resolution.” Unlike the last time he did so, Logan’s motion received a second so that it could be discussed.
Deputy Supervisor Dan Torres, while emphasizing his own personal preference is to recite the Pledge, said he didn’t feel comfortable overruling the decisions of the members of other boards, simply because they were unpopular. “We don’t have the legal authority, it has no legal weight, and [members of other boards] would not have to vote” to remove it from their agendas; they could simply ignore the edict.
“I’m embarrassed it’s such a long discussion,” said Logan. He and Conboy both said that they’d been unable to find any decisions suggesting that what Torres claimed was true; Torres said he’d received a legal opinion through the Association of Towns.
“The Planning Board took a vote,” said Marty Irwin, and how board agendas are structured should be respected. He encouraged dialogue directly with the members of those boards.
Conboy replied, “We didn’t want to look like we were picking a fight with the Planning Board.”
“I don’t agree with the Planning Board vote,” said Torres, “but I believe in democracy.”
Reluctantly, board members did vote, and only Logan was in favor. Before leaving, one veteran said, “As a taxpayer of New Paltz, I’m ashamed of all of you.”