Sexual discrimination allegations

Residents back Thomas for vice mayor

Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 5/16/18

ORANGE PARK – Allegations of sexual discrimination filtered through the council chambers of Orange Park Town Hall Tuesday night during what was supposed to be a routine task.

During the May 15 …

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Sexual discrimination allegations

Residents back Thomas for vice mayor

Posted

ORANGE PARK – Allegations of sexual discrimination filtered through the council chambers of Orange Park Town Hall Tuesday night during what was supposed to be a routine task.

During the May 15 council meeting, the council was to nominate and swear in a new mayor and a new vice mayor. When it was time to select a new mayor, council member Ron Raymond nominated Vice Mayor Gary Meeks and with a 5-0 vote, the nomination went through and Meeks became the mayor. The vice mayor position, though, did not come with as much ease. Mayor Meeks nominated Raymond and when it was time to vote, the council was not in complete agreement, specifically council member Connie Thomas who was the only member to vote nay on Raymond’s nomination. Following the vote, Thomas read a speech explaining her opposition.

“So, all that is left and what is the absolute most discouraging item to even bring up in my mind is that it must be my gender,” Thomas said.

Before saying this, Thomas listed things she believes are not reasons she wasn’t nominated for the position of vice mayor citing that it couldn’t be that she has an underlying agenda, as in her words, she does not. She said it can’t be because she openly supported a candidate last year as much of the council has done the same. She also said that could not be jealousy as she doesn’t believe her fellow council members hold such an emotion. Thomas continued listing reasons it couldn’t be before arriving at the issue of gender.

“Yes, I am female. I have the divine ability to bring children into this world. And, because I am feminine, I do not throw my voice or assert myself in a way that takes up a lot of verbal and physical space. I am thoughtful in my words and actions. I am a bridge builder and I am a woman of vision,” Thomas said. “If anyone mistakes those qualities for weakness, they are sadly mistaken.”

Thomas believes that the Orange Park Town Council should formalize a rotation process ensuring that any form of possible discrimination towards any council member is put to rest.

“We must ensure that no one ever has to make this speech again due to their gender, race or religion,” Thomas said. “I have been denied a formalized leadership role in this Town’s history but let that not ever be again for anyone who is so greatly honored to serve the people of this Town.”

Thomas’ speech was met with a large amount of applause and a number of public comments condemning Raymond’s nomination.

“I want to apologize for what has happened to you [Thomas],” former U.S. Navy Master Chief Randy Anderson said. “Mayor Gary Meeks, if this has happened, it is our duty to correct it and if it is a fact that it has happened [gender discrimination], I would expect these people to resign their positions and I think a lot of people in Orange Park would agree with me.”

Others spoke directly to the new vice mayor during their three minutes in front of the podium.

“From a woman’s point of view, councilwoman told you how she felt and then we have the new vice mayor that’s already sworn in that says he doesn’t feel that way,” Earl Padgett said. “But yet, he’s not a woman so he wouldn’t know how that would feel so I just wanted to say, take a minute to think about what you’ve done – this is something that’s going to last for a while –

change needs to come.”

Others spoke out in favor of Thomas’ speech and not in favor of Raymond becoming the vice mayor and each speaker was met with applause.

After the meeting, Meeks, who made the nomination for Raymond to become vice mayor, said it has nothing to do with gender.

“It has nothing to do with gender,” Meeks said. “I thoroughly enjoy working with Thomas but my nomination has to do with experience, which Raymond has more of.”

Meeks said the reason he didn’t discuss this topic with the public was because he felt it would be counterproductive. For him, he feels that Raymond, who has served as mayor before(in the 1980s), is the most experienced and because of that, most capable of holding the seat of vice mayor. According to Meeks, Raymond has spent the most time on the council and because of that, he felt that nominating Raymond as vice mayor was the most appropriate line of action. He also stated that if someone felt Thomas should be vice mayor, they should have nominated her and opened up the council for discussion. There were no nominations from the council for Thomas.

Raymond did not publicly speak on this subject, other than to say he does not feel what Thomas feels. Raymond was the first council member to leave after the meeting was adjourned and he did so quite quickly, leaving no time for questioning.

In other business, new council member Roland Mastandrea, who recently beat Eugene Nix in a race for Seat 3 of the Orange Park Town Council, was sworn in. During the meeting, which was Mastandrea’s first, he asked the council to approve an Ad Hoc Economic Development Advisory Committee.

“[Sanctioning this committee] will allow us to work with [developers, financiers and property owners] so that we can be involved in plans of what can happen in this town,” Mastandrea said.

Essentially, this Ad Hoc Economic Development Advisory Committee, according to Mastandrea, would serve to connect business leaders, developers, financiers, property owners and the government of Orange Park together to create a vision for the future of the town and work together to bring that future into fruition.

“At its most basic and broad level, this committee would serve to bring economic growth to Orange Park, or at least try to,” Mastandrea said. “Without economic growth, the Town of Orange Park will be faced with reductions in service including our Police and EMS.”

“Property values will go down and this will result in lowering values of homes in town,” Mastandrea said. “In cities across the country that do not stay current with developments, the overall quality of life decreases and we are trying to stop Orange Park from potentially becoming one of those cities.”

Raymond was concerned with the committee serving as an Ad Hoc committee, citing that they would have to follow Sunshine Laws which rule that discussion can only take place in a public, noticed meeting. Mastandrea said he welcomes those laws and takes no issue with them. Meeks found himself concerned with the vision of the committee as he couldn’t quite understand the committee’s purpose. Thomas felt that the scope of the committee should be narrower but that regardless, the council should give the committee a chance.

After 45 minutes of discussion, no vote was taken but instead, but the council decided to bring Mastandrea’s committee under the umbrella of the council’s Land Use Committee. “I had never considered this but I am very OK with this,” Mastandrea said. “It’s a great idea and I’ll still be able to accomplish what I originally planned for.”

As far as the name of this old-turned-new committee, Mastandrea said a new name will be given to it in the coming weeks. He also said this committee will meet as soon as possible and he plans for the committee to meet more often than simply once a month.

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