Holiday lights come back on

Just in time for the final night of Hanukah, Dec. 19, the Board of Selectmen on Dec. 18 voted unanimously before a standing-room-only crowd to switch the town hall holiday lights back on and form a committee to prepare an inclusive display for next year.

The move to illuminate the evergreen trees out front came in an amendment to the board’s decision by Selectman Mike Kaelin. “Let’s have a committee for next year, but in the meantime, let’s get those lights back on,” Kaelin told the selectmen, drawing shouts of “here, here” from the audience.

About 20 people packed the meeting room, some of whom spoke out during the public comment portion of the meeting, calling for the holiday lights to be turned back on.

First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice had shut them off a couple of weeks ago after a local sixth grade girl asked at the selectmen’s Dec. 4 meeting for a more inclusive display, including a menorah.

Vanderslice on Dec. 18 explained why she shut the lights off.

“Every first selectman has to make decisions,” she said. “We bring to those decisions our life experiences and our sensibilities. Two concepts that are ingrained in me are fairness and facts. At our last meeting, I provided information that I thought to be factual, that under the law, a menorah is a religious symbol. I provided this same information to Sara (the sixth grader), her mother and you all in an email prior to our last meeting. In that email, I said that we did not have a menorah at town hall because, one, there was a menorah in Wilton Center and, two, we could not put up a menorah without being required to put up other religious symbols, which leads to other issues.”

At the end of the board discussions on Dec. 4, Vanderslice said, she had a couple of takeaways, including that she was to report back at the Dec. 18 meeting after having Town Counsel Ira Bloom provide more information, including a case mentioned by a local rabbi, and that there was a sense from at least two of the four members at the meeting that they would like to allow for a menorah, if there was a way to do it.

Vanderslice said she did as instructed and learned that in the case referenced, a menorah may not be considered religious if in the presence of both a Christmas tree and a liberty plaque. She said she gave it some thought.

“One, I had provided the Board of Selectmen, the girl and the public with the wrong facts, but not intentionally. Two, because the subject was ongoing at the board, it was not appropriate for me to attempt to replicate the fact pattern and put up the menorah, and three, I thought about the matter for a great deal of time and struggled with the fact that one request was fulfilled (mine, to put up Christmas lights) and one request was derailed because of our absence of all the facts. Four, in the end I decided it wasn’t fair and I decided to temporarily unplug the lights until the Board of Selectmen could be informed and provide guidance,” Vanderslice concluded in her lengthy statement of why she had turned off the lights. She provided a copy to The Bulletin.

The public noticed the absence of the lighted trees in front of town hall immediately.

“I love to see all the bling and celebration of the holidays,” said resident Sue Wall, one of those who spoke. “Joy is for everybody.”

Resident and newspaper columnist Stephen Hudspeth spoke at the podium and called for an inclusive display.

“I’d like it to be a community that welcomes everyone,” Hudspeth said.

The committee to study town hall holiday decorations will form soon and will seek guidance from the town counsel before presenting its findings in time for next year to the Board of Selectmen.

In the meantime, the lights at town hall are back on.

“I would turn them on right now,” Vanderslice said at the end of the more than three-hour meeting Dec. 18.