The Elkin commissioners Monday night placed a moratorium on any new memorials at the park until the parks and rec advisory committee can develop and present an ordinance to define what can and cannot be placed there. This comes on the heels of comments by 11 members of the public during the board meeting on the issue of a memorial bench which was removed from Elkin Municipal Park last week.
Town officials said Ben Crosswhite, a member of the Elkin High School Class of 2006, didn’t have proper approval to place the bench in the park, but the family and others supporting them said the town removed it because its design prominently features a Bible verse.
“The bench in question represents Elkin,” said William Twedell during public comments. “It is an expression of compassion, a love for a neighbor and sympathy for friends. It is the expression of people who love one another.
“These people have elected you to represent them,” he told the board. “I do not think it’s wrong for people expressing their compassion about each other.”
John Wiles also addressed the board, expressing his sympathy for the family of Mason Roten, who died in a vehicle accident three months ago. “They should be given some latitude,” he said.
But he said he knows the staff of the town and he takes their word about the happenings leading up to the removal of the bench Dec. 6. “I think it is a big misunderstanding taken out of proportion,” he said. “Town officials know it would be a precedent set and open Pandora’s box” to allow the bench.
Wiles said the town employees have been the “subject of slander, libel.”
Susan Stuart, also a resident of Elkin and whose son was a member of the Class of 2006, said she was not there to represent anyone but herself, she had not spoken with her son about what happened. “To the Roten family, our hearts go out to you, but I believe the town received an undeserved black eye on this issue,” she said.
“The procedure for getting approval was not followed. Adam [McComb, recreation and parks director] told the representative of the class the procedure, but he did not listen. Procedures and policies are in place for a reason, so the town property doesn’t become a repository for whatever someone wants to put there,” she said.
She said the town staff had been receiving calls from many people and had been “subjected to vile and disrespectful” comments. “They are being called baby hater or a person whose soul had been condemned to hell,” said Stuart. “They’ve received unchristlike treatment.”
Stewart Roten, the grandfather of Mason, said his outrage was in the manner the bench was removed. “I was amazed the town staff didn’t consider it was a memorial to a child. At the very least they could have asked the family to remove it in an orderly time frame,” he said. “I was stunned as we all were.”
Teresa Roten, Mason’s grandmother, said the family wishes to have the bench placed where they can enjoy remembering their grandson and listen to the laughter and playing of other children. “We would love to spend time near joy,” she said.
“Tragedy has a way to unify,” said Wes Caudle. “To the Roten family, you are not alone. The beauty of Elkin is we rally together. I urge you to see the difference in sympathy and order.
“Order must be enforced. The rules were not followed,” he said. “This is not an issue of faith. There is no attack on Christianity. This is an opportunity to be a beacon of reason. There is placement for this bench whether in a public or private place.”
Mike Smith pointed out the bench is a memorial and other memorials in the park have words on them that are quotes from other texts or people. “The Bible is no different,” he said, noting that “whether it is from the Bible or the Koran, the bench should be approved.
“We all know the Rotens have suffered imaginable loss. Tonight I pledge $100 toward an appropriate bench to be placed in the park following all the rules and regulations,” said Smith.
“Obviously I’m for peace on both sides, and obviously there has been confusion about what was the truth,” said Bill Blackley.
“I’ve put in 17 signs and seven benches, and every time it takes about two months to get them approved. With every bench I’ve put in, even memorials, Adam [McComb] requires you get overhead for power lines, underground for wires and sewage marked, we spray the ground to mark utilities,” he said of the involved process it takes to install a bench at the park.
“I hope we can all come to a great resolution,” Blackley said. “In civil society if anyone could put anything, you just can’t go put anything anywhere.”
During the agenda item discussion, McComb provided a recap and timeline of what happened prior to the bench being placed on the landscaping surrounding the train memorial on the E&A Rail Trail and when it was removed by town staff and placed in locked storage at the rec center. Since then, it has been retrieved by the Crosswhite family to be held by then until a final decision on its placement can be made by the town.
Mayor Lestine Hutchens recommended the board take the issue and it become a law through a town ordinance. She suggested the parks and recreation advisory board create the ordinance in consultation with the town attorney and McComb and present it to the commissioners at their February board retreat. During the ordinance development process, she suggested a moratorium on any new memorials being placed in the park, and the commissioners could take action on the proposed ordinance as early as their March meeting.
“We were going to cross this bridge at one time or another,” said Commissioner Terry Kennedy. “I suggest all parties pro or con show up at the next meeting when it will be addressed. There needs to be time for everyone to cool down.”
Commissioner Dr. Skip Whitman and Bob Norton expressed frustration that as the representatives for the citizens, they were not contacted by the family or community members about their opinions on the bench and its removal prior to Monday’s meeting. Norton said only one person called him and that was Monday morning.
“It’s difficult to represent you from a vacuum,” Whitman said. “We’re here for you. I fully support the mayor’s request. I’m not ready to make a decision on this tonight.”
“This town is made up of good people, and good people find solutions to their differences,” said Norton. “Believe in yourself and believe in your town. We’ll resolve this difference.”
Commissioner Cicely McCulloch made the motion to follow the mayor’s recommendation, and it was seconded by Whitman and approved unanimously.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.