WILKES-BARRE — The issue of whether or not the city will observe Dr. Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday remains unresolved, but the discussion at Thursday night’s council meeting evoked an emotional exchange between two possible mayoral candidates.
After four people presented reasons why the city should observe the national holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader, Mayor Tom Leighton and Councilman Tony George got into a slightly heated war of words. After the meeting George confirmed rumors that have been circulating the city for months, saying he intends to run for mayor next year.
“Yeah, I am,” George said. “I don’t know if I’ll be running against (Leighton), but I am going to run for mayor.”
In a meeting that was filled with several speakers running over their allotted five-minute time allowance, council unanimously approved a resolution to urge the mayor and his administration and the appropriate union leadership to consider amending their existing contracts to include King’s holiday as a city paid day off. The city observes 12 paid holidays and it could switch one for King’s day, or add it as the 13th paid holiday at an approximate cost to the city of $77,000.
Ronald Felton, president of the Wilkes-Barre Chapter of the NAACP, gave an impassioned presentation on why the city should observe the holiday. He said Wilkes-Barre remains the only city in the region that does not observe the holiday.
“This is not a black holiday,” Felton said. “This is an American holiday. Why is it that Wilkes-Barre is the only city in the area that does not recognize Martin Luther King Day?”
Leighton noted that the city does set time for a ceremony on the holiday to show respect for King and all of his accomplishments. But Felton said that’s not enough. He said MLK Day is a national holiday and the city should observe it, even if it has to add a 13th paid holiday.
“I understand the concern for finances, but this would cost only a penny per day to the taxpayers of this city,” Felton said. “But by observing this holiday, you would raise the morale of this city. Dr. King wasn’t talking about black people getting to the mountaintop. He wasn’t talking about black people getting to the promised land. Dr. King was talking about all people getting there.”
Felton presented petitions with nearly 400 signatures in support of the city observing King’s holiday. He said he had invited representatives of the city’s four unions to a meeting to discuss the issue, but none of them showed up.
“The mayor has the authority to add this holiday,” Felton said. “Sometimes people in leadership positions got to lead.”
Council president Bill Barrett explained that council can not add a holiday to the city’s list, but all five members supported the idea. Leighton said he feels King is deserving of the honor, but he said he could not justify adding another paid holiday to the list.
“The police and fire unions support it because they work every holiday,” Leighton said. “But we can’t get the other two unions to agree.”
The other two unions with city employee membership are the Teamsters and the Local 1310 City Hall Workers.
Lots of support
Joseph Borland spoke in support of the issue, stating King made the country and the world a better place.
“This is not about a day off of work,” he said. “This is about honoring a man who inspired all citizens to speak up.”
Rev. Shawn Walker and Rev. Michael Brewster joined Felton in speaking on behalf of observing King’s holiday.
“By not observing Martin Luther King Day, it becomes just another day,” Walker said. “By not observing it, we fail to honor the fight he fought and the struggles he struggled with for all of us.
“Don’t be a city of rhetoric; be a city of action.”
Brewster said America owes a great deal of gratitude to Dr. King.
Brewster said the city should send a message, “the right message.” He said, “That message should be that this city is on board with the dream of Dr. King.”
Leighton vs. George
George said he favors adding the holiday or switching one out for a holiday already observed.
“Whatever it takes, we should do it,” George said.
Leighton said George has never attended a ceremony held by the city on the King holiday.
“But you always find money to fund one of your pet projects,” George said to Leighton.
Leighton asked what pet projects George was referring to and George said, “The security system for your house.”
After the meeting George said the issue is simple — the city should close for Martin Luther King Day.
Asked if he would run for a fourth term as mayor, Leighton said it’s too early to make any announcements.