GEORGETOWN — On Friday, June 18 — the day before Juneteenth, observed annually to commemorate the end of slavery in America — state offices in Delaware were closed, per Gov. John Carney.
Sussex County offices were closed June 18 to observe Juneteenth, as well.
“May all citizens take time on this occasion to reflect on the cultural and historical significance of this date, on which the last enslaved African Americans were declared emancipated, and celebrate the day’s principles of freedom and equality,” the county’s website stated.
However, in Georgetown and other towns across Sussex County, it was business as usual.
By a 3-2 vote over email, the mayor and Town Council of Georgetown chose not to close town offices June 18 in observance of the holiday.
That has left some upset by the decision of the town’s five-member governing body.
Council members Angela Townsend, Penuel Barrett and Sue Barlow replied not to close town offices in response to Town Manager Eugene Dvornick, whose June 16 email sought mayor/council’s decision, given that state and county offices would be closed June 18.
Councilwoman Christina Diaz-Malone and Mayor Bill West voted to mark the holiday and close town offices.
Councilman Barrett said he based his vote on budgetary concerns and the fact that the town maps out its holiday calendar each December.
“I found out the Wednesday before the holiday. That wasn’t part of the ones that we approved. I’m not against it. It will be brought back up in December (for next year),” he said. “Just with the budget situations and things like that, we’ve got to keep an eye on things.”
Councilwoman Townsend agreed.
“The main factor was the budget,” she said. “And it was kind of short notice. It happened on a Wednesday. They wanted to give them Friday off. One of my big concerns is, when we faced the budget this year, we had a $2.3 million deficit. I tried to get facts and figures on how much the town actually pays for a paid holiday. I haven’t been able to get that yet.
“Mainly, it was budgetary concerns. I have nothing against Juneteenth,” she continued. “Now, if we sit down in December and go over holidays, if they would like that holiday off, then let’s see what else they are willing to give up (in its place).”
Councilwoman Barlow said Georgetown’s holiday situation differs from the state’s and the county’s.
“The state is rolling in money. So is the county. So they can afford to have days off,” she explained. “Georgetown can’t afford to have a holiday. We are running a deficit budget. That is why I voted against it.”
Georgetown resident Jane Hovington, a leader in the African American community, said she was mystified by council’s decision.
“I sent them an email — mayor and council members — asking them why,” she said. “The only thing I can assume is they have no understanding as to the history of the African Americans in their town that they represent. Because if they knew of the history and the suffering that has resulted from slavery, then they would be more than happy to recognize the holiday.”
Councilwoman Diaz-Malone, elected in May, said she voted for the holiday “in principle.”
“It was a conscientious thing,” she said. “(The three who voted against the holiday) will say, ‘Oh, it’s the budget. We don’t have the budget for it.’ If you are genuinely concerned about the town’s budget, I wholeheartedly understand that. But it was mean-spirited in my book.
“On the other hand, the tasteful thing to have done — for me, (if) had I voted no — was to have had a meeting of the council, a call, and could we at least issue some kind of a press release, saying, ‘Congratulations to the Black community, … (but) we are not in a position to give our employees a holiday’? But nothing was said,” Councilwoman Diaz-Malone said. “That is what really hurt me — as a Hispanic person.”
Mayor West concurred.
“To me, … this is a great day in history, which we could have started a healing process and start as a community of one,” he said. “The employees worked hard all through COVID, and this would have made them feel valuable to the town.”
Councilwoman Barlow said more discussion is to come.
“Again, come budget time, … we will discuss it and decide whether or not that should be a holiday we observe,” she said. “I have to look out for the majority of the Georgetownians. And when we are running a deficit budget already, we can’t afford to do something on the spur of the moment like this.”
Councilwoman Townsend added, “I have to look at the budget. I am responsible for the budget. And to me, it just did not make sense. If they want it off for next year, we’ll look at it in December and give them that day off. But in the same token, they need to give up another day they have off.”
Additionally, Councilman Barrett and Councilwoman Townsend pointed out that Georgetown was not alone in remaining open June 18.
A survey of municipalities in the county revealed that “10 of the towns worked a normal schedule,” Councilman Barrett said.
The town of Dagsboro, among those that did not close, made June 18 a floating holiday. “If you wanted it,” said Dagsboro Town Administrator Cindi Brought. “Nobody took it.”
Millsboro town offices were also open.
In addition to Gov. Carney recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday, the Delaware House of Representatives on Thursday unanimously passed legislation naming it as such. House Bill 119 now goes to the state Senate for consideration.