Leave it to the Denton County Commissioners Court to finally move in the right direction on removing the Confederate soldier memorial from its perch on the downtown Square — but still do so under a cloud.
Following decades of organized protests to the statue’s continued sentinel over the lawn in front of the Courthouse on the Square — and after over a week of loud calls to “Take that statue down!” — commissioners on Tuesday voted to apply for a Texas Antiquities Code permit to remove and relocate the memorial.
This moment has been a long time in the making — a decision that should go a long way toward removing the pall cast over our city’s core that served as a disincentive to many would-be patrons and visitors, particularly minorities. But the method by which we arrived at this crossroads is no cause for celebration; in fact, it stinks of secrecy and government arrogance.
The commissioners’ Tuesday agenda was first posted to the county website on Friday of last week, as is usually the case, in concordance with the noticing requirements normally in place under the state’s Open Meetings Act. But these are not normal times.
In March, Gov. Abbott suspended the part of the Open Meetings Act that guarantees the public access and participation in government meetings, as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor’s order kept in place all sections of the act except for the requirement of a physical gathering space for the public to attend meetings and ask questions. An accompanying statement from the Attorney General’s Office advised that under the governor’s order, public bodies are expected to “conduct meetings by telephone or video conference to advance the public health goal of limiting face-to-face meetings ... to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”
Following the governor’s order, the Denton County commissioners did move, as did most agencies in the state, to conducting virtual meetings via videoconference, with clearly posted instructions for the public to listen to and participate remotely. That is, until May 26, when without prior notice or explanation, the commissioners resumed in-person meetings at the Courthouse on the Square, with County Judge Andy Eads afterward justifying the in-person return of commissioners and staff as a “return to the normal ways of doing things.”
Except the new “normal” apparently did not include the in-person return of the public or the media.
Nor did the new “normal” address the attorney general’s admonition that, even under the governor’s pandemic order, “governmental bodies conduct meetings in a transparent and accessible manner.”
The agenda for that May 26 meeting (as well as for Tuesday’s meeting) still carried the pandemic caveat “Denton County Commissioners Court meetings will temporarily be held via videoconference and will not be held at the Courthouse-On-The-Square.” Whether that inaccuracy is a violation of the state’s noticing requirements is debatable, but it certainly betrays a disregard for transparency if after two weeks, the public still is being misled.
The emergency addendum to consider removing the statue was not added to the commissioners’ agenda until late Monday, only after nine days of protests demanding that unlikely move — unlikely because as recently as December, following a series of four meetings inviting public input on the statue, Eads remained insistent the statue was going nowhere.
“We respect that, but the decision has already been made,” the county judge said after that fourth meeting at the Southwest Courthouse in Flower Mound. He was referring to the monument advisory committee that voted 12-3 in 2018 to keep the statue on the south side of the courthouse lawn with an additional plaque and videos about the history of slavery in Denton.
So how did the commissioners’ mindset move so far in just six months’ time? How was Eads so confident of the decision to remove the statue that he declared it in his opening remarks at Tuesday’s meeting, before any discussion on the matter? We don’t know because the county is not saying.
On Sunday, Willie Hudspeth — inarguably the most ardent proponent for removing the statue, organizing protests for the past several decades — led a chorus of chants on the courthouse lawn demanding action. With no mention at the time of the statue on Tuesday’s agenda, this newspaper began making calls to Eads and county spokesperson Dawn Cobb just after 9 a.m. Monday seeking reaction.
No calls were returned, no comments offered. A request for the newspaper to cover Tuesday’s meeting in person was simply ignored.
How we have arrived here, when after 102 years of bitter debate, our community is moving past the dissension that has divided us, cannot detract from the historic moment now before us. But we are owed more from the leaders we have empowered with our votes — more transparency, more explanation, more respect.
A blight on our downtown Square is being removed — and with its departure an invitation renewed for all to visit our city’s core. Everywhere except for the county courthouse just yards away, whose doors remain locked, our elected leaders hidden away.