Former State Rep. Chris Caruso on Tuesday informed the Board of Park Commissioners that he’s continuing community conversations to decide the future of the Christopher Columbus statue.
Some community leaders are open to further dialogue while others have been reticent.
Commissioners last month unanimously voted for the statue’s return to Seaside Park, its home since 1965 overlooking Long Island Sound, after Mayor Joe Ganim had it removed and placed into storage for public safety concerns following protests around the country against the explorer’s colonization of the Caribbean.
The mayor then asserted the statue’s future should be decided by the park board, but Ganim’s legal counsel advised last week that his mayoral duties trump the park board when it comes to public safety issues, something Caruso took to task in his virtual presentation to the commission.
Caruso shares in detail his efforts to resume community discussions in an effort to find common ground on placing the statue into historical context.
Caruso and former Mayor Lenny Paoletta are among Italian American leaders seeking a civil discourse with the statue’s opponents. They want it returned to Seaside Park.
Meanwhile, the City Council has walked away from the controversy after posturing for a civil resolution and conducting a public hearing.
Good evening Chairman Labrador and distinguished members of the Board of Parks Commissioners. Tonight I come before you as one of the three representatives of the Italian American community and as importantly, a lifelong Bridgeport resident.
Before I present my report, I would like to sincerely thank each of you, individually and collectively as a Board for the unanimous vote at your legally convened August 11th meeting to restore the statue of Christopher Columbus to Seaside Park.
As a Board, you’ve taken much criticism for the courage you demonstrated. In effect, your vote righted a wrong–a wrong not committed by you, but by the Mayor. In June of this year, three representatives of the Italian American community and five City Council Members led by City Council Member Jorge Cruz reached an agreement to keep the statue up, but to continue the dialogue with the larger community and to work on mutually agreed projects that would foster unity. While we were waiting for the Mayor to join us by supporting the agreement, he instead quietly and deceitfully took the statue down under the guise of unsubstantiated threats to damage it, and without the consent of the Board of Parks Commissioners in clear violation of the City Charter, Chapter 12, Sections 10(a), 12(a) and Section 22. But, it’s not the first time nor will it be the last time that this administration has violated the City Charter–the City’s rule of Law–with immunity.
The Mayor, by his actions, intentionally took sides against the Italian American community and all city residents who believe in fairness and process. He showed no leadership then and none now. Instead of bringing both sides together to reach a meaningful resolution, he fans the flames of division for political gain. Sadly, it’s the age-old Bridgeport story. Keep the community divided and rob its citizens of their prosperity.
On Saturday, during a national holiday weekend, the CT Post reported on the City Attorney’s comments that the Mayor does not have to honor the order issued by the Board of Parks Commissioners to restore the statue. I happen to personally like and very much respect the City Attorney, but his remarks were “off the cuff” and certainly not an official, well thought out and legally sound opinion. Frankly, his words could be mistaken as those of a first year law student rather than a seasoned attorney. Of course, I certainly do not wish to impugn the efforts of first year law students.
The remarks of the City Attorney centered on the COVID-19 emergency as for the reason the statue cannot be returned. How convenient, but has the City Attorney forgotten that the statue was removed during the same pandemic that has plagued the nation including Bridgeport since late February, and the same protests that have been taking place since the end of June? Maybe it’s time to come up with another excuse, or something even more novel like telling the Mayor to obey the order of the Board of Parks Commissioners–NOW!
Stay the course, Commissioners! Remember, the City Attorney’s remarks only advises the Mayor that he does not have to return the statue, but in the CT Post on Friday, July 24, the Mayor stated, “the authority for what happens with the monument rests with the City’s Parks Board. The most prudent response is to allow the Parks Board to make a decision on how to proceed.”
Mr. Mayor, the Parks Board made the decision on August 11th and now you are required to abide by the City Charter and respect the Board’s order to return the statue.
Board members, through your vote, you showed leadership and integrity. You leveled the playing field for both the Italian American community and the protestors to meet, and hopefully through dialogue, reach meaningful resolution.
When this chapter of Bridgeport’s history is written, you, the Board of Parks Commissioners and NOT the Mayor will be recognized for the much-needed leadership that you demonstrated on this issue.
Now my report: At the August 11th Board meeting, you encouraged me to reach out to the opposing side to restart the dialogue that began in June and to work through the issues in an effort to reach a meaningful resolution. As I recall, you asked me to report my efforts to the Board.
To that end, I set out to reach individuals from the opposing side. Here are my results …
— Thursday, August 12 – For the first time, I met Jeff Baez at the News 12 press coverage at Seaside Park over the Board’s decision to return the statue. Jeff’s wife is a leader of the Golden Hill Paugussett Indian Nation. I gave Jeff my cell number. He said he would call me to set up a time for him and his wife to meet with me. On August 13, 21 and 22, I posted on his Facebook page for him to call me, but I did not hear from him. Mr. Baez also offered to speak with City Council Member Cruz on my behalf to encourage him to meet with me. To date, I have not heard from Mr. Baez.
— Thursday, August 12 – I spoke with Gemeem Davis (Executive Director of Bridgeport Generation Now) at the same News 12 press coverage. I suggested to Gemeem that we should talk and she agreed. I asked if she had my cell number and she responded that she did. Since I did not hear from her, I left her a voice message on August 25 at approximately 11:43 am to call me, but she did not. To date, I have not heard from her.
— Tuesday, August 25 – I called and left a voice message for City Council Member Jorge Cruz at approximately 11:45 am. He responded with a text telling me that he would not meet with me. In the text, he stated, “It’s time that you adopt a more humanely and empathetic mindset as this dilemma CONTINUES to divide the community.” In the text, he continued to refer to “The Killer” Christopher Columbus. Then, on August 27 and August 30, he sent me videos supporting his argument against the Columbus statue. To date, City Council Member Jorge Cruz and I have not spoken.
— Tuesday, August 25 – I called Reverend Stanley Lord, the President of the Greater Bridgeport National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to introduce myself. I asked if he and I could meet. He agreed and an initial Zoom meeting was set for Thursday, August 27 at 11:30 am. Unfortunately, because of a health related issue, I had to cancel the meeting, but a new meeting was scheduled for Friday, September 4 at 11:30 am. The meeting took place and the Reverend was very attentive and listened. As a result of the meeting, and at my request, he agreed to set up a meeting with those on the opposing side. In turn, I would arrange to have members of the Italian American community present at the meeting as well.
— Tuesday, September 8 – I spoke to Reverend Lord and he is working to get a meeting scheduled. With the Labor Day weekend, it was difficult to reach everyone. He will update me once dates and times are firm.
On behalf of the Italian American community, I would like to thank the Board of Parks Commissioners for their time and attention to this issue. I will update you with any and all progress. If any Commissioners have questions of me, I would be more than happy to answer them. Thank you!