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Councilman's actions spark 3-hour debate with photo

He was described as a dedicated public servant, a retired educator who had rolled up his sleeves and worked tirelessly to research complex issues on behalf of his community. A true leader who helped Henry County earn a “Stellar” reputation and a $333,000 prize. A man of Christian faith.

But to others, he was a public embarrassment with an “atrocious” social media history. A racist whose divisive posts on Facebook had given a black eye to the community and sullied the image of an entire county. A dishonest man not worthy of being on the Henry County Council.

So it went for more than three hours Thursday night in the Old Circuit Courtroom, where not only was the character of Kenon Gray called to trial, but so too was that of an entire county. A county many in the crowd of more than 100 people thought they knew, but admitted afterward they, like the former educator, had a lot to learn.

When it was finally over, a contentious, emotional and deeply personal meeting that began with the reciting of a prayer written by civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended with two of Gray’s most outspoken critics, people of color, extending hands of fellowship his way.

And while the meeting yielded no official action taken on the county councilman’s status, many left seemingly determined to work toward better days ahead, carrying attitudes of gratitude toward their fellow Henry Countians. With eyes opened, they pledged a renewed view that focused, as Dr. King once said, not on “the color” of someone’s skin, but “the content of their character.”

The issue

Just over a week ago, councilman Kenon Gray sparked local outrage when he re-posted a meme about U.S. representatives he views are socialists. A number of Henry County residents said the post and others like it were signs of racism, whether Gray saw them that way or not.

But many at Thursday’s meeting said Gray’s unacceptable social media behavior involved much more than just one or two posts.

Upon a motion by Clay Morgan, the council took the unusual step of voting to allow all who wanted to speak five minutes each. The normal limit is two.

Many took full advantage of the extra time.

Melanie Wright shared a folder full of examples showing posts that she said were racially insensitive in nature. She also stressed to the council that once Gray’s posts started to create angst, he tried to cover his tracks by saying he’d been hacked.

“He blatantly lied to his constituents,” Wright said. “How could he not resign? He has divided our community. Is that someone you want as your colleague? Censure him. He has shown that when he is backed into a corner, he has no problem flat out lying. He is a dishonest man, a dishonest man not worthy of the position he holds.”

Wright said Gray’s actions and subsequent media coverage reflect poorly on a community, tarnishing the Stellar designation Gray himself worked so hard for Henry County to get.

“When anyone searches for Henry County on the internet, is this what you want them to see?” Wright asked. “There can be lasting damage creating dark clouds over our community. You have the opportunity to right this wrong. Please do not let Mr. Gray to continue to divide this community.”

Mary Olson Tate urged everyone on the council to take racial diversity training.

“Going to church with people of color does not absolve you,” she said. “A lot of people say their intentions are good, but your presentations are bad. Talk to your black and brown friends and ask them. Things are not the same for them. We’ve always been very aware there is a racism problem here.”

Tate said one of the most hurtful posts Gray shared said was “They’re already receiving reparations. It’s called welfare.”

“That was blatantly racist,” Tate said.

Then, reacting to previous comments about the pain he and his family are enduring now due to the controversy, Tate added: “I’m sorry you’ve been suffering for three weeks. But how long have my black and brown (friends) have been suffering? It’s been a lot longer than three weeks.”

Nelson Mays stood as an example of how Gray’s welfare post was both inaccurate and unfair.

“I’m a 46-year-old black man who has never been on welfare,” said Mays, who moved here seven years ago from Nashville, Tenn.

Mays said while some have welcomed him with warmth and respect, others have left items on his door step “inviting him to join the Klan.”

While agreeing with several calls to forgive Gray, Mays pointed out that’s not usually the reaction most people have when they are wronged.

“Do you forgive those who knock your mailboxes down?” he asked. “Or do you call these guys (pointing to the police) and ask them to haul their butts off to jail?”

Mays not only asked for Gray’s resignation, but for Council representative Peg Stefandel’s as well, who earlier in the meeting had compared racism to green beans.

“It’s disrespectful for you to compare racism to green beans,” he said. “I will campaign for your resignation even if it means I get on the ballot myself. I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Libertarian. I’m an American.”

Applause filled the room after Mays’ comments.

“I felt the eyes of every officer in this room on me because of what the topic was,” Mays continued. “What you did was wrong. You have not owned up to it. And we want you gone. I don’t wish you ill or anything bad to happen to you. I just want you to be gone (from your council seat).”

Another black resident painted a stark picture of racism rearing its ugly head in New Castle.

“In order for me to buy a house, they went to every person on the street and asked if they were OK with me moving in,” Ernest Clayborn said.

Then turning to Gray, he said “You think your family’s been through something? You should check mine.”

Yet after the meeting, both Mays and Clayborn approached the council table, extending hands of fellowship and forgiveness to Gray.

First amendment freedoms

Franki Zile, a former newspaper reporter for The Courier-Times, local coach and educator, asked the county council to think of this issue in First Amendment terms.

“There’s a reason why the First Amendment was first,” Zile said. “The founders saw that as a pinnacle of democracy.”

Zile pointed out the local meeting coincided with the funeral of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, praised widely for his work in civil rights.

“He did his call for action with no anger or hatred toward anyone,” Zile said. “Just asking for someone’s head on a platter….that solves nothing. The easy way out is to kick him (Gray) out. What we need to do is move forward for education.

Local businessman Gary Rodgers praised Gray for enduring the harsh words hurled his direction.

“Kenon should be congratulated for the fortitude and spirit to sit and listen to all of this,” Rodgers said. “Where you have thrown Kenon under the bus, can you stand up to this kind of scrutiny and can you sit in that chair? I doubt it.”

“Mr. Kenon Gray is a duly elected and actively serving county council member. He is certainly one of the most erudite people in any room, almost without regard for the population in that room,” Rodgers continued. “He has added great value to the work of the county and the council. His representation and activities with the plan commission are beyond stellar. His work with the Stellar grant activities are better still.

“He is also a private citizen with First Amendment rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America – a constitution you all have sworn to uphold. And he gets to make whatever politically satirical statements he wants to make. That’s his right. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree. That’s your right. The day you commit to or even propose some council action based on someone’s interpretation of a Facebook post or other private comment is the day you also will forfeit your First Amendment rights. Are you ready to do that?” Rodgers asked.

Gray’s apology

“From the bottom of my heart I ask for forgiveness,” Gray said. “I ask for grace. I appreciate everybody here. In my 21 years as associate principal of New Castle, I felt like there were less referrals to my office related to racism than when I first started. So I saw a positive trend. When I started in ‘97, probably one time a month somebody would bring up something, some stupid thing that a student said to another and they got punished for it. Near the end, it was probably twice a year. So I thought there was progress. I realize we’re not there yet.

“I do ask for forgiveness. I do realize I did wrong,” Gray continued. “I do like to follow the Golden Rule. I really believe I’m not racist. But I posted some things that were hurtful that suggested I am and that, I am deeply sorry for.”

Gray said he had taken an entire graduate course on diversity from Ball State University as well as one last year from Bill Wilson of the Indiana Sheriff’s Association. But the first-term county councilman admitted Thursday, “I’m not there yet. Please forgive me if you can find it in your heart to do so. I truly don’t look at any person and see color. I see the person behind it. But my posts did not suggest that. I’m sorry I hurt this community – any part of this community.

“I am a Christian. I hope someday – right now I wish God would just take me up and walk me to the Pearly Gates....if it were not for my family, I wish Jesus would just come for me right now and get us over all this pain.”

“Thank you for expressing your heartfelt concerns. I will take them and I will try to do better.”

Council reaction

One by one, council members described the Kenon Gray they knew, the one they have worked alongside, a man with good qualities who used bad judgment with his social media behavior.

“While I disagree with what Mr. Gray said, I can’t tell you how much time and energy I’ve seen him give this county. He has done an amazing job from a council perspective,” Councilman Chad Malicoat said. “I can sit here and say with 100 percent certainty in all the work that we’ve done together, I have never seen those type of comments or statements, anything like his posts, in his actions.”

“I think we should all move forward,” Malicoat concluded. “We can grow from this. We can learn from this. I think there are some very good opportunities ahead.”

A somewhat emotional Susan Huhn, the council president, also came to Gray’s defense.

“I know Kenon very, very well,” she said. “I’ve eaten meals with him and we have spent so much time together. He has been so good to my daughter (who is black).”

With her voice breaking, Huhn added, “He cares about her. And I know he is not a racist man.”

Huhn said a majority of Gray’s social media posts have been educational and informative, having nothing to do with politics or race.

“He posts so many things,” Huhn said. “He posts to educate and share information. He posted about COVID. He shared current events. He posts both sides. He posted for masks, he posted against masks.”

“And so you ask me how I could let this slide?” Huhn said. “And I say... I hold myself to the standard of Christ and I fail all of the time.”

Councilman Clay Morgan said he appreciated Gray’s apology as sincere. In his view, the meeting, as hard, contentious and emotional as it was, proved to be a blessing in his eyes.

“This was a good experience for me. I appreciate the words I heard,” Morgan said.

Council representative Peg Stefandel said, “My daughter always tells me, ‘Mom, don’t waste your time on human anger. If you’re going to get angry, make it righteous anger.’ And sometimes I forget that. I do appreciate everything everybody’s said. I listened intently, I really did.”

Council representative Betsy Mills said, “I think we have work to do in Henry County and I’m passionate about that work. I’m very interested in what we can do to make Henry County a place that is welcome to everyone. Henry County is a great place and can be even greater if we work together.”

A call for forgiveness

County Commissioner Ed Tarantino offered a plea for forgiveness.

“God gave us all a beautiful and perfect world to live in and we all proceeded to mess it up. This year in particular, we seem to be messing it up more than usual. We mess it up because we are not perfect. I have never seen a time in my life that it seemed so difficult for people to get along. I have never seen so much hate in the world and especially in my own country.”

“We have all done things that are wrong. We have all said words that have hurt other people. We have all said things we wish we could take back, but couldn’t,” Tarantino continued. “We have all said things that were misinterpreted and we say things like ‘I didn’t mean that’ or ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’

“When we hurt someone, especially when it is not intentional, we all want to be forgiven. We don’t like it when someone holds a grudge against us for years. I had two aunts that did not speak to each other for the last 30 years of their lives. They were not happy people.”

“If we are ever going to get healing in this country, we have to learn how to forgive,” he said. “We want justice, we want punishment handed out when we feel wronged, but the punishment should fit the crime. Kenon and his whole family have already been punished for the last three weeks. He and they will continue to be.

“I believe that racism is ignorance. Unfortunately, the wisest minds we have had in this country for over 200 years have not been able to come up with a law that eliminates ignorance,” Tarantino said. “I would not be up here if I believed Kenon Gray was racist.”

“An important part of the Lord’s prayer is forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Those powerful words we should all remember tonight and every day.”


New Castle Street Department Supt. Lee Walker looks upon the rubble left behind by a June 17 fire. Walker said clean up of the site is scheduled to begin next week.

CLEAN-UP STARTS NEXT WEEK


News
Mask maker, mask maker, make me a mask

SPICELAND — About a dozen women with ties to South Henry schools gathered Tuesday at Spiceland Friends Church to sew as many masks as possible for Tri children and personnel.

The sewing bee was organized by church members Sandi Swann, Beth Carr and Tommie Hunt. They discussed how one essential needed for going back to school are face masks and decided they would make some.

Swann estimates that about 300 were stitched from the colorful assortment of donated fabrics and elastic. They planned to get back together on Thursday. Swann thinks there will be more sewing days ahead.

The women worked at various stations pleating, ironing and stitching the masks in four sizes with the sound of several sewing machines humming in the background of the fellowship hall.

Linda Brock worked on pleats. A cancer survivor, she knows what it’s like to not only wear a mask but to experience the fear of needing one and not having it available.

Nancy Wadman taught sixth-grade at Tri Elementary for 39 years and is now the church’s ministry coordinator. She sewed at her machine while her dog, Gracie, relaxed at her feet and occasionally got up to visit people friends in the room.

“I have a vested interest in making sure all these kids are safe,” Wadman said.

Spiceland resident Donna Lowhorn said she was called to see if she would help. She was happy to support the Tri schools in the project because her kids attended them all the way through high school.

Retired FACS (formerly home economics) teacher Virginia Newkirk worked on pleating. “I think it’s a really good idea,” she said of the task at hand. “There’s so much controversy about things. This is one of the positive things for kids.”

Said Linda Ratcliff, “I think it’s a great idea. It gives people a chance to be together and to do something that helps our entire community – and the schools will have enough stress.”

Brenda Reece has the task of turning the fabric, and remarked, “I like being with these people but it is a good project. It’s a fun outing.”

South Henry School Board President Beth Carr likes helping the kids get masks. She likes the fact that with the colorful and different assortment of fabrics, students can choose what they like and if they misplace the masks, those will be easier to identify when found.

“It’s just fun,” she added.

Said Tommie Hunt, “It’s just something to help out and it’s fun to be with all these people. That’s the best part.”


Government
Governor announces state to remain in current stage of Back on Track

INDIANAPOLIS — Governor Eric Holcomb announced Thursday the state will remain in Stage 4.5 of the Back On Track Indiana plan until Aug. 27.

Local governments may impose more restrictive guidelines.

“This virus will take what we give it, so it is incumbent upon us to be on our best behavior, practicing physical distancing, good hygiene, and masking up,” Gov. Holcomb said.

Holcomb has used data to drive decisions since the state’s first case of the 2019 novel coronavirus in early March and he continues to do so. The state will continue to monitor and respond to these four guiding principles:

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide has decreased for 14 days

The state retains its surge capacity for critical care beds and ventilators

The state retains its ability to test all Hoosiers who are COVID-19 symptomatic as well as health care workers, first responders, and frontline employees

Health officials have systems in place to contact all individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and expand contact tracing

The executive order also extends the moratorium on evictions from rental properties and the prohibition on filing foreclosures through Aug. 14.

Following consultation with the Indiana State Department of Health and the Indiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the mandatory mask order for schools has been modified to allow students to remove masks for classroom instruction when they are able to maintain at least three to six feet of distance between students.

The state government capital complex will begin to open to the public on Aug. 17. Hoosiers who need assistance may continue to schedule appointments with agencies in Indianapolis and throughout the state. Many offices, such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, are open without an appointment needed.

Details and guidance will be updated at BackOnTrack.in.gov.

The Governor also signed an executive order extending the public health emergency an additional 30 days.

Both executive orders can be found here: https://www.in.gov/gov/2384.htm

— Provided by the Indiana Statehouse


Government
Solar plan should look at end-of-life, too

Marsh Gratner of Sulphur Springs has always liked the idea of solar panels and even thought about putting some on her house.

Gratner was one of several Henry County residents who spoke to the planning commission this week about concerns or suggestions for the county’s future solar ordinance.

Gratner wanted the planning commission to think long-term with their regulations.

Those panels may be environmentally-friendly while turning sunlight into electricity, but it takes heavy metals like cadmium and lead to hold the works together.

Gratner provided an article by solar panel designer DualSun stating 94.7 percent of each solar panel is recyclable.

According to EnergySage.com, solar panels last about 30 years. The current technology starts to break down around Decade Three and needs replaced.

EnergySage said recycling the panels also saves rare elements, like gallium and indium, that are used in the photovoltaic cells.

A 2016 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimated that $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar modules by the year 2050.

At the time of that study, the United States was the fourth largest provided of solar energy in the world, behind China, Germany and Japan.

The study also found, however, there were no PV-specific waste law in the US and no regulations mandating the collection and recycling of end-of-life PV panels.

The Henry County Planning Commission is taking recommendations for the solar ordinance, including decommissioning procedures.

Send suggestions to djacobs@henryco.net before Aug. 14 to have them considered by the planning commission.


News
Reid Health: Not all masks OK; Vented masks not effective against COVID-19

When it comes to protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 by wearing a mask, Reid Health officials are alerting patients and visitors that some types do not work – so they are not allowed in a health system facility.

“We are joining other national health systems such as the Mayo Clinic to let community members know that masks with exhalation valves are not an effective, acceptable form of protection,” said Jennifer Ehlers, Vice President and Chief Quality Officer at Reid Health.

Though most cloth and other types of masks are OK, masks with exhalation valves allow unfiltered air to be exhaled, increasing the chance of exposing others to the virus.

“In general, masks are effective because they help prevent the likelihood of someone breathing out the virus, as well as reduce the risk of someone inhaling contaminated air,” Ehlers said.

Acceptable masks include homemade cloth masks, surgical or procedural masks, dust masks and N-95 masks that are not vented.

Reid Health door screeners at all locations, besides checking for other potential symptoms, will also not allow anyone to enter a Reid facility wearing a vented mask. The screeners will provide an approved mask in those cases.

Ehlers noted that the trend in positive cases and hospitalizations with positive or presumed positive COVID has been going up again at Reid Health. As of Thursday, the number was back to 34 hospitalized after hitting a low in the teens in early July.

“This means we cannot let down our guard,” she said. “COVID-19 is still very much a reality in our area, so mask up!”