Bill seeks to have local government pay for removing statues, memorials

BY NOAH GOLDBERG

(CNS) – A first-term delegate has proposed a bill that would require localities to pay for the removal or relocation of war monuments and memorials, as well as set up independent committees to determine where removed monuments are sent.

“I firmly believe that a locality has the right or the decision based on their elected governing body to remove, take down, relocate, cover, what not when it comes to these memorials,” Del. Wren Williams, R-Stuart, author of HB 778, said. “But I wanted to separate the decision as to what happens with these pieces of art from the more politically driven, passionate, heat-of-passion-type decision [to initially remove or relocate].”

Williams defeated seven-term Republican incumbent Charles Pointdexter to earn the GOP nomination in Virginia’s 9th district last June. Williams largely campaigned on Second Amendment rights, anti-abortion policy and election security. As a Patrick County lawyer, he helped represent former President Donald Trump in the 2020 vote recounts.

HB 778 would require localities that have decided to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover public war memorials and monuments to create independent committees composed of one resident of the locality, two experts on Virginia war memorials and two local government officials or a chief administrator. These committees would be required to choose a nonprofit organization that the locality, at its own expense, must gift the monument to.

The issue of war monument and memorial removal became especially contentious in Virginia during the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. A Confederate war monument in Franklin, was relocated from Memorial Park to Popular Springs cemetery last summer, and the Robert E. Lee statue was one of several Confederate monuments to be removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond.

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, formerly chaired and remains on the Counties, Cities, and Towns Committee where HB 778 awaits review. She expressed concern that the bill shifts responsibility from elected officials to appointed committee members.

“To me, people who are elected are elected by the public and represent the public which is different than staff hired by a locality,” Kory said. “I did not want a decision like this, which is an extremely delicate, fraught decision, to be made by someone who was not elected.”

Williams did not believe that elected officials were best suited for these decisions.

“Elected officials are not recognizing the historical value of these memorials,” he said. “This legislation creates committees that will recognize the historical value of these memorials and place them in the proper hands.”

Kory helped write and pass HB 1625 in 2020. This law stipulated that local governments could choose the fate of a war monument or memorial after the locality had decided to remove or relocate it. The law also allowed a variety of funding mechanisms for the relocation process, whereas HB 778 would mandate that the locality pay the expenses.

“Honestly, it seems to me that this is a bit of a punishment if a locality wants to change anything about a war memorial,” Kory said.

The Commonwealth of Virginia spent upwards of $2 million to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Monument Avenue, a cost Kory believes localities may struggle to assume.

“These monuments were commissioned, designed, erected, and cared for by the Commonwealth of Virginia for decades,” Williams wrote in an email to the Capital News Service. “If a locality wishes to take them down, it is fitting that the locality should pay for the altering and/or removal.”

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