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Old Lyme selectwoman's request for racism resolution continues to be ignored

Old Lyme — In the 13 months since Democratic Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal first proposed a resolution identifying racism as a public health crisis, no votes have been taken to formally accept or reject the idea, even though she has brought up the issue more than 20 different times.

Similar measures have been endorsed by officials in Old Saybrook, New London and Norwich. Gov. Ned Lamont in June signed into law a sweeping bill addressing the effect of racism on public health at the state level. Lyme in July passed a "resolution supporting equality for all" that identified racism as the cause of persistent discrimination and disparate outcomes in areas like housing, education, employment, health and criminal justice.

Old Lyme Republican First Selectman Tim Griswold on Monday said he and Republican Selectman Chris Kerr have expressed in previous discussions that they don't want to bring the issue to a vote because they don't agree with the language in Nosal's proposal.

"She can ask it a hundred times and if we don't want to act on it, why should we?" Griswold said.

Griswold back in August of last year said the tone of the resolution implies the town has a race problem, according to meeting minutes. In April, the first selectman reiterated that initial sentiment when a resident asked why the resolution had not been acted upon.

"I don't subscribe to the idea that we have a public health crisis in Old Lyme," he said at the time. "It seems to me, as I said at the beginning of the process some time ago, that it's been a very negative way that it characterizes the townspeople, and I just don't buy it."

Nosal on Monday told The Day she keeps bringing up the issue in hope that Griswold will reconsider his stance. "I keep hoping that he will give it some due consideration, think about it, and agree to revisit the issue."

Describing Old Lyme as "an outlier" in its refusal to pass the resolution, she said she has heard from more people who support it than do not.

Nosal over the past year has repeated various themes, including that she does not think people in Old Lyme are racist and that she would like to work with the selectmen to come up with language upon which they can all agree. She said the goal is to make sure procedures and policies at the local level are carried out with "an equitable eye" in the future.

The last time the issue was discussed at length by the public was on May 3, when two residents spoke in opposition to the selectwoman's efforts to get the resolution addressed and two spoke in favor.

Resident Keith Czarnecki during the public comment portion of the meeting accused Nosal of "inciting violence with undue rhetoric" and attributed her efforts to "white guilt" from living in a beach neighborhood and being married to a Pfizer executive, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

"I believe Tim's son-in-law is a Black man," Czarnecki said. "Where's the merit of your claim now? And who's the racist?"

Resident Ana Reiter said she supported Nosal's efforts, adding that she does not think individuals or the town as a whole are intentionally perpetuating racism. She said passing the resolution would show that the town is committed to making sure it is a desirable place to live for everyone.

"I applaud Mary Jo for continuing to bring this up in the face of people who have not been acknowledging her," Reiter said. "I think it's really important that everyone is acknowledged and is heard."

Nosal has brought the issue up during the "other business" portion of every meeting since then, because she said Griswold would not put it on the agenda for discussion or action. According to July 6 meeting minutes, Griswold said adding the topic to the agenda was a fruitless endeavor and he did not want to proceed with it.

At that same meeting, Griswold said he would ask the director of the Ledge Light Health District if he thought racism was a public health crisis.

Ledge Light Health District Deputy Director Jennifer Muggeo said Wednesday that the district, through its participation in the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut, has put the issue at the center of its plan for improving the overall health of the community.

"We do consider racism to be a public health crisis," she said.

The community health plan includes a focus on addressing key barriers that prevent some people from obtaining things like a place to live, food, medical care and transportation the same way others are able to access them.

"We created a system from the beginning of our nation that led to folks holding different balances of power, and just because some of those very egregious and obvious things are now illegal, it doesn't mean that things are now just and equitable," she said.

She said understanding racism as a public health issue means "really seeing the line" that connects historical and ongoing injustice to health outcomes.

Griswold this week confirmed he asked Mansfield, the health district director, about the public health implications of racism. He said the director described a broader, more socially influenced viewpoint than the first selectman had expected.

"Seems to me public health is more medically oriented and I suppose you can relate one thing to another and ultimately you get to other areas," he said, "but I think from a standpoint of public health, it would be like a virus or measles."

The draft resolution proposed by Nosal based in part on a template created by Hartford-based Health Equity Solutions comprises eight action steps, including identifying racism as a public health crisis, focusing on fostering a "justice-oriented" town government, promoting equity in local and state policy, improving data collection, forging partnerships to confront racism, engaging "actively and authentically" with communities of color where they live; and identifying clear goals and objectives to assess progress.

Griswold and Kerr on Monday, as has been the case at most meetings in recent months, did not respond when Nosal again asked selectmen to consider declaring racism a public health crisis as a way to ensure officials govern "with an equitable eye" in the future.

"Very good," Griswold said. "If there's nothing further, I guess we can entertain a motion to adjourn."

Griswold after the meeting said he is in charge of preparing each agenda. He added that items also can be added during the meeting itself if approved by the majority of selectmen.

Kerr could not be reached for comment.

Parliamentary procedure, which guides boards and commissions in Old Lyme, allows a member to make a motion to add an item to the agenda. It must be seconded and then approved by a two-thirds vote.

Nosal after the meeting said she tried to get the topic added to the agenda for a vote in June but was not supported by Griswold and Kerr. She acknowledged she did not go so far as to make a motion at that time.

"I can ask again," she said. "At least one more time. Give 'em a chance to try again."

e.regan@theday.com

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