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One commissioner said they received “a lot of requests” and couldn’t please everyone. Records show no one but Newark Pride organizers formally asked for courthouse lights.

 

By Bob Vitale

A Licking County commissioner who said “a lot of requests” to light the local courthouse led to a policy that excluded Newark Pride acknowledged Tuesday that just one request has been received in writing since January.

It’s the one county commissioners denied from an openly gay Newark City Council member to light the 140-year-old building in rainbow colors for the city’s first Pride celebration on Saturday, June 9.

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A Freedom of Information request by Prizm for copies of all lighting requests received by county commissioners this year showed no one other than Newark council member Sean Fennell submitted a request by email or U.S. mail.

After a meeting Tuesday at which more than a dozen Licking County residents urged commissioners to acknowledge Newark Pride, Bubb said the flood of requests he has described to Newark and Columbus media had come by “word of mouth.”

Bubb has said that Licking County 4-H was denied a request for the courthouse lights to shine green during 4-H Week. Asked to name some of the other people, organizations or events whose lighting requests were turned down, Bubb said: “I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus.”

He said other requests came for people’s birthdays.

Bubb has insisted the lighting policy, which says any exceptions to the approved list must be approved by county commissioners, was not created to in response to Newark Pride’s request.

Fennell, who has doubted that from the beginning, said the absence of other requests in writing makes him even more convinced commissioners acted specifically to deny acknowledging Licking County’s LGBTQ community.

“In their rejection letter one of the primary arguments made was that they would be inundated with requests and that it would be unmanageable to process them all,” he said. “This seems to not be the case and calls into question the reasoning behind the decision that was made.”

“While I remain optimistic, this new information combined with the timing of the resolution and some of the comments made by the commissioners makes it increasingly difficult to feel that the decision was not an act of discrimination.”

Minutes from commissioners’ meetings do show Bubb suggested in January that courthouse staff discuss the idea of an operational policy for new LED lights installed during a $9 million courthouse renovation completed late last year.

Commissioners took no action, though, until Fennell asked that the lights—programmable in different color combinations for different occasions—be lit in the LGBTQ community’s rainbow colors as “a beacon of acceptance” during Pride.

Three days after Fennell’s March 12 request, Bubb asked for and received by email a list of holidays for which the lights illuminating the Ohio Statehouse cupola are changed. (They are changed only for state-recognized holidays.)

On April 3, Licking County commissioners approved a list of 18 holidays such as Christmas, Independence Day and Columbus Day; events such as Diabetes Awareness Week and Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month; and occasions such as the spring equinox and Patriots Day for which their own LED lights would change colors.

Fennell wasn’t told about the policy until after a follow-up email on April 5 in which he asked whether there was a formal process for making his lighting request.

“As you can imagine, there would be hundreds of requests year round and it would be impossible to entertain them equally,” said an April 17 letter from Bubb, Black and Flowers.

“We’ve just had a lot of requests,” Bubb told the Newark Advocate. “People have asked, ‘How do I get on the list for lighting of the courthouse?’ We said we’re going to be inundated every weekend for events.”

Fennell has accused commissioners of creating their policy in response to Newark Pride’s request. Last week, Licking County resident and Ohio State Board of Education member Stephanie Dodd, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election, said commissioners were “bigoted” and owed the LGBTQ community an apology.

At Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting, the county leaders were told by one resident that their decision to ignore Pride was allowing an image to take hold of Licking County as an unwelcoming place.

Openly gay Newark City Council member Jeremy Blake said he didn’t come out until he was 30 years old because of fears that image was accurate. Rainbow lights on the courthouse would be a powerful sign of acceptance for LGBTQ youth in Licking County, he said. Commissioners’ decision to exclude Pride is a powerful sign also, he added.

Those who want lighting at the courthouse to acknowledge Newark Pride spread rainbow flags on tables in the commissioners’ meeting room and spoke often of the economic and voting power of LGBTQ people and allies of the community.

Robin Bartlett, a Denison University professor who teaches both economics and queer studies courses, said communities are more likely to attract businesses and residents if they’re seen as open and welcoming.

“If you appeal to such a small group, you’re going to have a small economy,” she said. “If I were a business person and I were thinking of investing in Newark, Ohio, I would think, ‘Oh, they’ve got issues. Let’s go somewhere else.'”

Bob Vitale
Bob Vitale is the editor of Prizm. A Toledo native and graduate of Toledo Public Schools, he has worked as a local government and politics reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, as a Washington correspondent for Thomson Newspapers and as editor-in-chief for Outlook Ohio. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield. Contact: BobVitale@prizmnews.com