Fenwick says he’ll vote to remove statue

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Councilor Bob Fenwick advises Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy that he's about announce that he'll vote to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee.
staff photo Councilor Bob Fenwick advises Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy that he’s about announce that he’ll vote to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee. staff photo

In his second press conference of the week, Councilor Bob Fenwick, who abstained during the heated City Council 2-2 vote to remove Confederate statues last week, said today he’ll vote to move the statue of General Robert E. Lee at the next meeting February 6.

“Immediately upon the vote being recorded, I will make a separate motion to request an advisory opinion from the Virginia attorney general as to any legal difficulties we should anticipate,” he said. Fenwick wants council to acknowledge this matter as a priority for City Manager Maurice Jones and city staff, and to “clear the decks” of any nonessential tasks, he said.

At the January 17 meeting, Fenwick linked budget considerations to his abstention on the statue vote, calling for an investment in citizens for projects such as opening community centers for longer hours and building a field house at Tonsler Park. He also took shots at the $1.5 million skate park that’s now out to bid, and the $1 million the city has spent on consultants for West Main Street, while slicing nonprofit support for organizations like Legal Aid Justice Center.

Last year, 13.5 percent was cut out of the budget for nonprofits that help the “people who could least afford it,” he said.

Fenwick called a press conference January 24 and stressed those same issues, encouraging a budget that put people first.

Apparently he got what he was looking for as far as support from fellow councilors at a budget work session that evening. He said, “A majority of the City Council supported several important initiatives” that in the past had not been funded.

“This support indicates a firm commitment to rebalancing the city budget in a way that acknowledges the importance of investing in community and individuals,” he said.

Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy was unaware of Fenwick’s press conference until he walked by assembled reporters in City Space. “I want to know, too,” he says. After Fenwick’s surprise announcement of his change of heart, Bellamy, one of the two votes to move the statues, declined to comment.

Councilor Kristin Szakos had joined Bellamy last March in calling for the removal of the statues of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and renaming the parks where they resided.

Fenwick noted a change in public sentiment over the course of the past year. Early on, the majority of people, both black and white, wanted to keep the statues, he said.

City staff estimated it would cost $330,000 to remove the Lee statue and $370,000 for Jackson. When people found out that it would expensive to move them, he said, there was a shift toward putting the money to better use.

But over the past month, he said, he noticed another change and told a friend, “The days of the statue are numbered.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces recommended leaving the statue of Jackson at Court Square because his is a less dominant figure than Lee’s, Szakos pointed out at the January 17 meeting before she made a motion to remove the Lee statue. She did not immediately return a call from C-VILLE.

Mayor Mike Signer and Councilor Kathy Galvin voted to keep the statues and contextualize them. Galvin said it was “morally wrong to scrub” history of symbols from the slave, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.

With Fenwick’s latest shift, says Galvin in an e-mail, “I’m left wondering what price councilors Bellamy and Szakos paid for Councilor Fenwick’s ‘yes’ vote.”

In an e-mail, Signer says, “I expect that much of Charlottesville is experiencing whiplash after Councilor Fenwick’s press event. In light of his remarks, it looks like we will again discuss the statues at an upcoming council meeting. I haven’t heard directly from Councilor Fenwick or my colleagues yet about upcoming agendas so can’t be more specific right now.”

Whether a 3-2 vote to remove the statues will be enough to actually relocate them remains to be seen. Virginia has statutes that prohibit the removal of war memorials, hence Fenwick’s request for an opinion from the attorney general.

And Confederate heritage groups have threatened to sue should Charlottesville try to remove the heroes of the Lost Cause. At the council meeting Szakos acknowledged the city was likely to face a lawsuit, but said councilors shouldn’t let that prevent a vote to move the statue.

Updated January 27 with Galvin’s comment.

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