Stafford Township — Despite the municipal attorney’s advice not to discuss personal viewpoints from the dais, Stafford Township Councilman George Williams unapologetically defended his recent online behavior as his freedom of speech and shared his point of view on the current migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border: “I got news for you. There’s no concentration camps on the southern border. It’s the only ‘concentration camp’ I know where people have to hop over a wall to get into. It’s got soccer fields, TV, video games. Nobody drinks out of a toilet. That’s all fake news.”
His comments were in response to public outcry prompted by The SandPaper article “Stafford Councilman’s Online Conduct Concerns Some,” which was printed in the Aug. 7 issue, as well as online with photos. The article was about some memes and comments Williams posted last month on Facebook, in a closed group and publicly on his timeline.
Stafford residents took to the lectern during the public comment portion at the end of the Aug. 13 meeting to share feedback and to shine a light on the political and moral differences currently being felt throughout the township of 27,000 – and beyond. Resident Teresa Demaio of Country Road said the news had spread to her daughter’s sorority and to the college campuses of Stevens Institute for Technology, Drexel University and NYU. “They’re saying she comes from a racist, redneck little town. Is that what we want?”
Barbara Reynolds of Pennsylvania Avenue said she was “sad and disappointed about our town.” In conjunction with the news of continued mass shootings elsewhere in the country, it all has her feeling “deeply disturbed about what’s going on. And I’m not the only one.”
Rather than focus on what she described as “meanspiritedness,” she acknowledged many Stafford residents are “working for the good, to make this a safe, supportive community for everyone.” To those people she wanted to say a big thank-you.
Joanne Sitek of David Drive, a former councilwoman and Democratic candidate on Joe Mangino’s ticket in last year’s municipal election, criticized Williams’ judgment as an elected official. “This behavior should not occur in our community. And certainly not coming from a township leader. It’s not acceptable. You’re elected to help residents, not separate or humiliate them.”
Those who hold public office, she said, should take care what they say and how they present themselves. They should be “helping the people of the town, not scaring them half to death,” she said. “What you do on your own time is fine, but you have to be careful if you want to sit up there.”
She is concerned fear and anger might become a norm. “We’re a better town than that,” she said. “This kind of thing can only divide us.”
Sitek pushed back against the attorney’s efforts to have Williams stay silent, insisting, “I think we deserve to know why this happened, why he feels that’s OK, and what is he going to do about it.”
David Jeffries of Brigantine Road said he feels his meme comment is responsible for the controversy. The meme shows a photo of a diverse group of individuals meant to represent the Facebook Community Standards Committee, to which Jeffries joked, “Where’s my sniper rifle?” as though to shoot anyone who would stand between him and his First Amendment right.
“Facebook likes to censor Republicans. I’ve been in ‘Facebook jail’ 30 days at a time for putting facts on Facebook,” Jeffries said.
“It was a mistake,” he said. “To anybody I offended, I seriously apologize. To the council and mayor, I apologize. Don’t be mad at George. I’m the one that made the comment that stirred this whole pot.”
His message to anyone who might have been offended: “Relax. It’s a meme on Facebook. It’s not the end of the world, there are a lot worse things out there to worry about.”
The administrator of the REAL Parents of Stafford Facebook group, Chris Molla of Anchor Avenue, spoke out against what he sees as “a lot of hate speech going on” about the people who belong to his page.
“The reason why I started my page was because people were being censored, mostly Republicans and conservatives.” He first blamed those who took offense for not getting the joke, and then the “leftist newspaper” for publishing the story “without reaching out to anybody that was involved.”
Molla said the town needs to come together in general; the accusations of racism and bigotry are not true; and everyone has a right to believe in what they want. “Because I don’t agree with what you may believe in doesn’t make me a racist or a bigot,” he said.
Teresa Demaio was particularly disturbed by the gun jokes and the meme about the DIY concentration camp for kids.
“You may think it’s funny, but I’ve lived with the scars of murder for decades. My Jewish neighbors don’t think the concentration camp thing was very funny. Nobody thinks child abuse is funny.
“It’s a stain on our community.”
Resident Lisa Edward urged Williams to offer an apology. “I understand you’re being advised not to speak at all, but please understand you represent the entire town, and so many people found it offensive, and it feels like you’re getting a pass because somebody can sit here and advise you not to speak.”
To that, Williams did respond.
“When I start talking about conservative voices getting censored on Facebook, or social media, it’s like 20 or 30 to one – that’s a fact.”
He said, “The problem is, when I have a paper that twists my words, that’s not fair to me.”
In fact, Williams’ words are nowhere in the article because he did not respond to a July 17 request for comment.
— Victoria Ford