Should the town of Swansboro be involved in crowd-gathering events?
It is a question over which the mayor and the board have disagreed as the Christmas season approaches. And it came to a head when Mayor John Davis and Chris Seaberg, town manager, scheduled a limited-entry Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.
The plans, posted Nov. 5 on the town’s Facebook page, called for the ceremony to light the tree at Olde Towne Square to be Saturday, Nov. 14. Families were asked to register if they wished to attend.
But the town canceled the ceremony following discussion – forced by Commissioner Frank Tursi – at the Swansboro commissioners meeting on Nov. 9.
The decision followed by one week similar action by commissioners concerning a request to close Front Street to vehicular access in order to allow two Saturday shopping events, on Nov. 14 and 28.
Fallout from the actions – or inactions – by the town has resulted in competing narratives as the town struggles with the global pandemic and COVID-19. On one side is Davis, who wants the town to enjoy a sense of “normalcy.” On the other is the majority of the town commissioners, who are concerned by the town’s involvement in activities that would put people at risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19. (See related Facebook posts.)
When Davis opened the commissioners meeting on Nov. 9, Tursi asked that the tree-lighting ceremony be placed on the agenda. All agreed.
“The first I saw it, it was on our Facebook page,” Tursi said when the matter came up for board discussion.
Tursi reminded the board that the ceremony, which normally takes place on the second Saturday in November during what has traditionally been a downtown shopping event, Swansboro by Candlelight, had been canceled – along with all of the town-sponsored events through the end of the year – by the commissioners in August.
Tursi then asked Seaberg who chose to change those plans.
“There was various discussion on still wanting to do a Christmas tree lighting,” Seaberg explained. “We looked into the capacity … and we limited that to 70.
“It was an event that was talked about, but the decision to put it on … “
“Who were these discussion with?” Tursi asked, wantong know specifically where the suggestion came from.
“I believe the mayor made the comments,” Seaberg said. He said he spoke with Davis after the meeting on Nov. 2. At that meeting, Davis had said he hoped to town could at least host some version of the tree-lighting ceremony.
“It was a joint decision,” Seaberg said of the tree-lighting on Nov. 14, he and the mayor decided.
Tursi then asked if Anna Stanley, the town’s parks and recreation director was involved in the process. Seaberg said her involvement was limited to providing details on the actual lighting.
Asked by Tursi if the commissioners should have been made aware, Seaberg said, “Hindsight being 20-20, I should have, but did not.”
Tursi then asked what COVID-19-coping steps had been planned for the event. “Will masks be required?” he asked.
Seaberg said masks would be required and people would be asked to leave if they refused to wear a mask.
Referring to the area involved, Olde Towne Square, Tursi said 70 people would exceed the governor’s limitations for outdoor events.
Tursi said scheduling this event should have gone through the board. He sought the opinion of Cliff Parson, attorney for the town.
“I believe this requires board approval,” Parson said. “The board would need to be satisfied. The board would have to approve this event.”
Davis told commissioners it was his decision to schedule the tree-lighting.
“If anybody bears responsibility it was not the staff, it was me,” he said.
Tursi called that decision a mistake.
“You have no authority to act on those wishes without the approval of this board,” Tursi said.
Davis disagreed. He said the town has allowed other, similar events, to take place. He mentioned a recent pickleball tournament along with other in-person events hosted by the Swansboro Parks and Recreation Department. “This is more of a ceremony,” he said.
Davis then noted that he wanted a more robust plan for coping with COVID-19.
“We can’t continue to live life in fear,” he said.
Commissioner P.J. Pugliese offered the commissioners a chance to consider a tree-lighting event under different circumstances.
“If we can’t do this,” Pugliese asked, “is there a way to do this later, properly?”
Seaberg replied, “I think we can put it on safely.”
Pugliese pointed out that it would be inconsiderate of staff to allow Seaberg to make plans if there was not at least a chance the commissioners would approve a tree-lighting of some description.
“Is there any way we could put this on,” he posed to the commissioners, “or should we go ahead and kill it now?”
Tursi said the idea of a tree-lighting ceremony was tempting.
“I would love to go down there … as I have every year,” he said. But COVID-19 has changed things. Scheduling a ceremony would be encouraging a mass gathering, and that is not a role the town should assume. “I don’t know how you do it.
“Just turn the switch on and light the tree,” Tursi continued. “I think we have to do what is socially responsible. I say we just cancel it and hope that next year will be better.”
Commissioner Laurent Meilleur – as did all the other commissioners – agreed with Tursi.
“I like the idea of just turning on the lights,” Meilleur said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation.”
Commissioner Larry Philpott reminded the commissioners of action from August and, in fact, read from the minutes stating that all the events are canceled.
“I don’t how we could condone a gathering downtown,” Commissioner Pat Turner said. “I know we want to go on living, but I want to live.”
Davis remained supportive of the idea.
“I think it’s sad,” the mayor said. “I think other towns are looking for ways … to give people a way to do things that meet the other facets of our health. Mental health, spiritual health … and we can’t find that way, and it is really sad to me.”
Still there was no motion on the tree-lighting to consider, effectively canceling the event.
Throughout the discussion, commissioners have recognized that the downtown businesses can proceed with their plans for shopping events. Turner, in fact, even suggested that the retail shops consider staying open later than usual during the Christmas shopping season in order to capture visitors downtown for dining and entertainment. That would not require town approval or partnership.
There has also been a recognition of the fact that there are different views among citizens as to the level of the town’s involvement in events, such as closing a street to accommodate a shopping event.
In a previous meeting, Philpott said he had been subjected to citizen comments on both sides of that issue. “I have been told the board would be irresponsible if it does not close the street,” Philpott said. “And I’ve been told the board would be irresponsible if it does close the street.”
Ultimately, businesses are not being told what to do, at least not by the town.
“What the businesses downtown want to do, they can do,” Tursi has said. But he added, “Closing the street would make us responsible. Once we were asked to become a participant, then it became difficult.”
The Nov. 9 regular meeting took place in a hybrid format with two members of the commission, Davis and Pugliese, in town hall and Meilleur, Philpott, Turner and Tursi, participating by way of the Zoom online platform. Also participating remotely was Parson, the town attorney.
Email Jimmy Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the Nov. 18, 2020, Tideland News.