BELLOWS FALLS -- Two Rockingham residents known to be critical of the municipal manager say the man should publicly apologize for a comment they believe was offensive to Hispanics.
Deborah Wright and Joel Love say they are upset about a racist remark made by Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II at a joint meeting of the Rockingham Selectboard and the Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees on Tuesday, and they cannot believe it went without scrutiny.
"There was nervous laughter, like chuckling, and that was all there was," said Wright, who attended the meeting, while Love did not. "I was hoping someone on the boards would say something, like ‘You might want to correct that.'"
Stearns was talking about an effort to develop a K9 unit at the Bellows Falls Police Department when he experienced what he described as a slip of the tongue. The Vermont State Police Canine Association recently donated Caesar, a 12-month-old Belgian Malinois, to the BFPD and the dog will be handled by Officer Mario Checchi. Stearns mentioned the canine would not have to be sniffing for drugs during the execution of a search warrant to be useful.
"I'm hoping that we put them in a car, and a lot of Latinos leave," he said at the joint board meeting.
He told the Reformer he had a bad choice of words and meant to refer to the Latin Kings, a notorious street gang he says is in the area and has "tagged" Rockingham Town Hall with its spray-painted logo. But the comment has generated controversy after Love extracted a 10-second clip of the recorded meeting and e-mailed it to WCAX. Stearns said it was a "faux pas" and apologized to anyone who was offended.
He and Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee said there will be no formal statement or apology from the town, a decision that irks Love and Wright. Love has two children who are Hispanic, but told the Reformer any rational person should be offended by Stearns' comment.
"It was an ignorant statement that basically racially profiled a group of people. The drug problem crosses all socio-economic and racial boundaries," he said, adding that he travels internationally for his job and deals with people from all walks of life. He said he was driving home from Boston when a friend called and told him about the comment. "I feel like I'm back in the 1960s."
Love has been critical of Stearns and other municipal government officials, but told the Reformer he would be equally as offended if anyone else had said what Stearns did.
Wright, a former Bellows Falls and Rockingham Free Public Library trustee, has often been at odds with Stearns over issues involving the library and is running for a village trustee seat and a position as auditor later this month at Village Meeting. Nevertheless, she said none of this has any affect on her outrage.
"We're in the 21st century. If you're a municipal official, you need to be careful about the things you say," she told the Reformer. "He should have corrected it there."
But MacPhee said he and other board members adamantly defend Stearns. MacPhee said the municipal manager used a wrong choice of words -- nothing more, nothing less.
"He's already apologized. As far as we're concerned, that's the end of it," he said.
Stearns said he doesn't accept the suggestion that Wright and Love are not blowing the situation out of proportion for political gain.
"What I do find rather interesting is that (Wright) was in the audience and even after the meeting she provided a letter that said she would provide (as much as) $800 for a K9 vest, and left the meeting," he recalled. "At no point in time did she address me or a member of the boards. And having been on the Board (of Trustees), she certainly knows how to call for a point of order if she was offended by something.
"The K9 unit is suffering because the focus is no longer on it," he continued. "The focus is on the manager saying, ‘Latino.'"
Stearns admitted he made a mistake, but thinks this is a self-serving initiative by Wright and Love.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.