SOUTHINGTON — A monument to Christopher Columbus erected in front of the John Weichsel Municipal Center this week has drawn criticism from some residents.
Town councilors unanimously approved the plinth and bust honoring the Italian explorer two years ago and said it would be unfair to the groups that paid for the monument to remove it now.
Erica Roggeveen Byrne, founder of Southington Women for Progress, submitted a letter to the council Monday with more than 120 signatures of people opposed to the statue. Byrne said she and supporters were late to the game but hope that a plaque can be added to the monument addressing what she called “historical inaccuracies” about Columbus’ discovery of America written on the plinth.
“Columbus didn’t discover America. There were already people living in Hispaniola and the Americas,” Byrne said. “It really just perpetuates this myth about Columbus.”
Southington Sons of Italy, Sorelle d’Italia in America, Southington Unico, Knights of Columbus and the Joe and Kaye Calvanese Foundation led the monument effort.
Kathy Reinhard, treasurer and secretary of the Calvanese Foundation, said Joseph Angelillo started a fund to erect a Columbus monument. Angelillo, who served on the Board of Education and was a member of numerous town groups, died in 2014. He raised about $1,000 and set it aside in an account.
Reinhard said the five groups that have taken up the effort easily raised the remaining $14,000 for the bust.
Cheryl Lounsbury, a Republican and council vice chairwoman, agreed that there were negative aspects to Columbus but said removing the statue would be unfair to supporters since the project had already gotten council approval.
“I think they did have some good points, but as far as I know, the vote was cast unanimously a long time ago. They’ve already put the money into the statue and everything is going forward,” Lounsbury said. “I wish they’d gotten into the process earlier.”
As far as historical inaccuracies, Lounsbury said, the opposition group was “splitting hairs.”
“The language we all heard in school is what’s on there,” she said.
Dawn Miceli, a Democratic councilor and UNICO member, said statue project officials met with School Superintendent Tim Connellan who voiced no objection the project. The school district offices are in the municipal center.
“When I hear that it lends credibility,” Miceli said.
Reinhard said when she met with Connellan a month ago, she had no reason to believe he had any objections to the statue or what was written on it.
“I was under the impression that he was all on board with this,” she said. “We asked for things and he said he would do this and that.”
Connellan didn’t return a call for comment Wednesday but in an email Thursday said he “never even had a conversation with Ms. Miceli regarding this issue” and didn’t have the authority to approve such a project.
“The record clearly shows that the Town Council approved the project. I had no involvement in the discussion or in the decision,” Connellan wrote.
When first presented, the Columbus statue was brought to the council without opposition and as a project spearheaded by a former town official.
“When you don’t have anyone else giving you the other side, it’s difficult. You make decisions based on the information you have,” Miceli said. “The discussion took place two years ago at the council level and for good, bad or ugly, there was no one who spoke against the project.”
Byrne didn’t think there was any malice or expectation of controversy when councilors first approved the statue.
“I don’t think it was done with any ill intent whatsoever. It was just done with a lack of knowledge and a lack of critical thinking,” she said.
Byrne started Southington Women for Progress after the 2016 election while feeling “disheartened by the results and specifically the results in town.” The group isn’t associated with a party but Byrne said their values would more often coincide with those of Democrats.
“Our focus is on making Southington a progressive place to live,” she said.
Both Lounsbury and Miceli said it was good to see residents getting involved and hope more would do so on issues important to them.