CHESTERTOWN — Without dissent, elected officials here on Tuesday night took an historic first step toward racial justice while also acknowledging sins of the past.
The Chestertown Mayor and Council approved a resolution that apologizes for slavery and establishes a Human Rights Commission and, in a separate vote, adopted a 16-month action plan.
What Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver titled as a resolution regarding “Black Lives Matter in Chestertown” when he introduced it last month was adopted after a revision to the action item related to the establishment of a Human Rights Commission.
In the draft resolution that Tolliver read into the record at the Aug. 17 council meeting, the commission would be empowered to investigate and resolve allegations of discrimination in employment and housing by town agencies and businesses.
Mayor Chris Cerino and some council members expressed concern about granting such broad authority to untrained citizens.
After Tolliver revised the resolution by removing the sentence about the commission’s power, the resolution passed by a 5-0 vote.
The resolution gives the town a 60-day window to establish the Human Rights Commission. In the interim, the plan is to fine-tune how the commission members will be selected and trained and what authority they will be given.
As part of the adopted resolution, at least 50% of the commission’s members will be people of color. The commission is tasked with issuing an annual racial justice and equity report.
In a separate vote, the council adopted a comprehensive action plan crafted by Cerino.
“Chestertown Unites Against Racism,” which the mayor first talked about at the same August council meeting that Tolliver formally introduced his resolution, is designed to educate the community about its history pertaining to race relations; pursue legislative reforms that address systemic racism in the town of Chestertown; and promote unity, equality and inclusivity among all residents.
Cerino spent about 20 minutes Tuesday night, Sept. 8 rolling out what he described as a “framework,” which will become more defined once an Equity Advisory Committee is seated.
As proposed, the 10-member committee will provide advice and guidance to the mayor and council on ongoing programs; assist with the development of new programs and community events; and assist with recruitment of guest speakers for diversity trainings, community dialogues and educational videos.
Before either of the votes was taken, Cerino and Tolliver sparred a little over which initiative should take precedence — the mayor’s action plan or the councilman’s resolution.
Ultimately, the Tolliver-penned resolution garnered the first vote.
“Before we think about adopting the plan, we need to discuss the resolution. ... In my opinion, this has to be dealt with first,” Tolliver said.
Tolliver supported Cerino’s 16-month plan — organized into pillars of education, legislation and unification — but said his resolution provided the foundation.
Tolliver found an ally in Councilwoman Meghan Efland.
“I feel like Ells’ resolution is an opening statement for Chris’ plan,” she said.
“This to me is the beginning,” said Tolliver, who then read his resolution into the record for a second time.
He added: “This says, ‘We’re sorry and this is what we’re going to do to try to make it better.’”
While acknowledging that she had concerns about what authority a Human Rights Commission would have, Efland said overall she thought the resolution was well written.
“The town benefited from slavery and we need to tell a more true history,” Efland said.