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Calistoga Pride flag delay renews past discord

A week’s delay in an annual flag raising ceremony honoring Calistoga’s LGBTQ+ community has reawakened historical questions about Mayor Donald Williams’ support for gay rights...

Concerns were voiced by locals after the raising of the Pride and Transgender Pride flags was delayed in Calistoga, earlier this June. | Calistoga Tribune file photo

CALISTOGA – A week’s delay in an annual flag raising ceremony honoring Calistoga’s LGBTQ+ community has reawakened historical questions about Mayor Donald Williams’ support for gay rights and prompted criticism from two members of the City Council.

June is Pride Month and most government agencies in California raised flags in honor during the first week of the month. Calistoga finally raised the Pride flag on its flagpole in a ceremony this week.

A proclamation honoring Pride Month only appeared on the council’s agenda on June 6 after Councilmember Irais Lopez-Ortega noted its absence and objected.

Williams, who was elected mayor last November and took over the office in December, drew wide-spread criticism in 2019 when, as a member of the council, he forced a roll call vote on a pro-LGBTQ+ proclamation. Although he didn’t vote against the item, he abstained from the vote and said he considered sexual orientation to be a “private matter.”

The delay in holding the flag ceremony this year was another misstep, said Councilmember Lisa Gift.

“I’m incredibly upset about it. I’ve always been upset about it,” she said this week, alluding to the 2019 council meeting, which, at the time, prompted her to write a letter to the Tribune criticizing Williams.

Calistoga was the first city in Napa County to officially raise the Pride Flag in 2013.

Every year since then the City Council has adopted unanimous proclamations in support of LGBTQ+ rights, until Donald Williams joined the council in 2019 and asked for the roll call vote.

Between 2020 and this year, Williams noted, the council has also approved unanimous proclamations in support of LGBTQ+ rights.

“We were the first city in all of Napa Valley to raise the flag,” said Gift early this week. “And that we have not done it this far is embarrassing.”

Councilmember Kevin Eisenberg said he would not “cast blame on anybody,” but regrets not having the flag raised sooner.

“We’re late,” he said. “There’s no two ways around it, we’re late. I wish we weren’t late. I wish we had been prepared, but we weren’t.”

Williams denied interfering or trying to delay the flag ceremony. When asked if he supported Calistoga’s LGBTQ+ community, Williams said he did.

“The principles of inclusion are really important and the principles of welcoming are important,” he said. “I don’t think it’s my business what other people’s orientation is, but nonetheless, it’s important to folks apparently, and so I’ve been supportive of the resolution for years, this year as well.”

Since taking over as mayor, Williams has eliminated all proclamations as a regular feature of the agenda. He has said that he “wanted to try things differently.”

In advance of the June 6 meeting, Vice Mayor Lopez-Ortega noticed the absence of an LGBTQ+ proclamation and requested Williams add it to the agenda. The mayor agreed.

But the need to amend the agenda drew attention and speculation among council watchers as to why the proclamation wasn’t originally included. Some recalled Williams’ actions in 2019.

Calistoga resident Lana Richardson suggested that Williams was trying to downplay Pride Month. She said that former Mayor Chris Canning, who was openly gay, was a far stronger proponent of gay rights.

“The significant difference is that in the past the mayor advocated for and initiated Pride activities,” she said. “That’s a drastic difference from our current mayor, who chooses to ignore it.”

Calistogan Mike Vaughn, who has an openly gay son and many friends who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, said he believed Mayor Williams played some role in delaying the flag ceremony.

“I want to keep blaming Don and I know in the past it’s always been Don that’s been the roadblock but I find it very interesting that his first year as mayor this has come up,” said Vaughn. “Don’s an honest gentleman,” he said. “He’s forthright, but some of the stuff he does – or doesn’t do – I just don’t support.”

Rebecca White-Keefe who counts herself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and has been flying the Pride Flag outside of her restaurant Mangia Mi since the first of the month, said she’s felt supported by the town’s residents. The exception, she said, is Williams.

“I was very sad to see Chris (Canning) leave office and have not felt very supported by this new mayor whatsoever,” said White-Keefe. “I think it’s a sad state of affairs that we actually had to force him to put it up.”

The month of June was designated Gay and Lesbian Pride Month in 1999 to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City that followed a violent police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar, the morning of June 28, 1969. June has since become recognized as LGBTQ+ Pride Month.

Both the Pride and Transgender Pride flags were raised Wednesday morning at a ceremony held across the street from Calistoga City Hall. There were about 25 people in attendance, including Mayor Williams and Councilmembers Lopez-Ortega and Eisenberg.