Grand Lake to continue public funding for Constitution Week
Trustees approve nonprofit’s grant application after hearing from residents at length
Grand Lake trustees have decided to continue giving Grand Lake US Constitution Week a town-funded grant, along with some newfound help booking talent.
Grand Lake weighed pulling the nonprofit grant over claims the annual week of events in September serves as a conservative rally that furthers partisan divides. However, trustees voted unanimously April 12 to continue providing the grant money, so long as event organizers will take the town’s input into consideration.
As town officials were wading into politics and public funding, trustees approved a $4,000 nonprofit grant for Grand Lake US Constitution Week — not $5,000 as previously discussed by the town. The approval marks Grand Lake’s continued financial support for Grand Lake US Constitution Week, just as the decade-old week of events has enjoyed for years.
Based on discussions, the input trustees sought will allow them to take an advisory role with Constitution Week’s keynote speakers, but it won’t be anything binding or include veto power. Trustee Ernie Bjorkman proposed the idea and then volunteered for the job.
“If we’ve got a dog in the fight as a town giving money, I’d like to have more say in it,” Bjorkman said during grant conversations.
Constitution Week organizer Mike Tompkins did not to concede control over the selection process but welcomed the town’s help. This came after organizers had again made their case for continued public funding, including citing the week’s many sponsors, emphasizing the numer of participating restaurants and detailing their efforts to be inclusive.
“I think that you would be surprised how many Democrat speakers we actually have had,” said Tom Goodfellow, who recalled founding Grand Lake US Constitution Week wanting to do something about political divisions.
Last year’s keynote speaker, John Eastman, soured progressives toward Constitution Week, but Democrats have helped with planning in the past.
Organizers cited those appearances as they pushed back against criticism that the week is biased, saying they have put on more than 60 presentations with around 37 speakers, including slating Democrats as keynote speakers three years in a row.
“If a party refuses to participate and then they claim it’s one-sided, I don’t know how to fix that,” Goodfellow said.
During their remarks, organizers said they were open to suggestions as the touted the week’s benefits, but they wouldn’t guarantee people won’t be offended by some of the speakers’ remarks.
“Tell us what to do. We are all ears to do this,” Goodfellow told trustees. “I just don’t know where to go here, and I don’t want the event to go away … I just think it’s so valuable in our country, and especially to have it in Grand Lake, it’s such a place that illustrates freedom and liberty up here.”
After previously seeking feedback from locals, trustees heard from a large number of residents during the April 12 town meeting. Every person who spoke up favored continuing the town’s support of Constitution Week except for one.
Many focused on their personal experiences with Constitution Week, which they described as rooted in an appreciation of nation, history and old fashioned fun, including the week’s offerings like the parade or children’s corner.
Many people also wrote comments in the chat that was available during the trustees’ online meeting. They too overwhelmingly favored the town’s continued support of Constitution Week.
“I would find it very disconcerting if we stop funding this,” former Grand Lake Mayor Jim Peterson said during public comments. “It’s great for the town. The town makes money. Especially on the foot of the epidemic and the fire, I think it’s very important we do everything we can to help support our local businesses and make their summer and fall a great time.”
One local business owner, Brian Reynolds, talked about Eastman’s appearance in Grand Lake last year. In addition to saying he enjoys the added business traffic from the week, Reynolds praised Eastman’s presentation, which Reynolds said provided multiple sides of an argument and well represented the discussion from all angles without promoting anyone’s personal opinions.
“Even when people wanted to pin him down on which was the better (argument), Eastman always returned to the comment that it’s not clear cut one way or the other,” Reynolds told trustees. “He always expressed that there was another side of the coin, and you couldn’t really say one is better than the other, and he didn’t the whole time.”
Other Grand Lake residents described the week as a “demonstration of synergy,” saying it builds qualities of character and shows what a small town can do when people work hard and treat each other with mutual respect. One woman equated the town’s grant money to Grand Lake supporting veterans everywhere.
“This has been a community event,” Goodfellow told town leaders. “I think part of the problem is I just don’t know if everybody is knowledgeable about how many people this has touched.”
Only one resident spoke out against public funding for Constitution Week during the meeting. He qualified his remarks by saying he also enjoys the week, but doesn’t think it’s a good idea to put public money behind it.
In response to public comments, at least one trustee spoke up for some of the people who he said didn’t speak up at the meeting. Bjorkman told organizers that he’s heard from people in town who don’t want their public money going to events like Constitution Week and their voices are important too.
“The elephant in the room tonight is nobody’s talked about the keynote speakers who’ve caused this controversy,” Bjorkman said as he asked questions about the selection process and how it landed on someone like former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke.
Clarke ran for sheriff as a Democrat in 2002 but has repeatedly promoted conservative views, aligned himself with GOP officials and spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention since his election. Clarke had also been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump and was thought to be considered for a high-level appointment in Trump’s administration.
Seeming to propose a compromise, Mayor Pro Tem Jonah Landy, who previously expressed reservations about approving Constitution Week’s grant funding, suggested that Grand Lake could approve the grant but earmark the money for items like logistics, security, safety and other nonpolitical expenses. He suggested the town refrain from providing support for the speakers.
That idea never got a vote, though. After Trustee Tom Bruton proposed a motion to approve the grant, Bjorkman put forth an amendment that the town continue to provide the grant under the condition organizers allow trustees some input with the keynote speakers.
“First of all, I am so sorry to hear that this has become so political,” Bjorkman said. “As we all know, the Constitution is a beautiful document and the educational part of Constitution Week is simply wonderful.
“Unfortunately, it has become politicized … If (the grant) is approved, as I mentioned earlier, we have the dog in the fight and I would like to see better participation from — I’ll volunteer to be on that committee. I’m a centrist. I don’t (align) right or left. I would be glad to have some say who the keynote speaker is.”
Organizers were careful not to concede control over the selection process, and they welcomed Bjorkman’s help booking talent, though Tompkins did express some concerns that he doesn’t believe other events are held to the same standards.
During public comments, one Grand Lake resident suggested there was really only one question facing Grand Lake over Constitution Week: “Is it good for the town?”
His answer was yes, and trustees agreed.
There are two corrections regarding previous coverage in the Sky-Hi News of Grand Lake US Constitution Week’s grant application.
• Grand Lake US Constitution Week organizers requested, and were approved, for a $4,000 nonprofit grant from Grand Lake. Previously, town officials discussed the request as if Constitution Week was seeking a slightly higher amount, but that was a mistake on the town’s part. The request was for $4,000.
• The Grand Foundation did not flag Constitution Week’s grant application for trustees’ consideration in any way. That was incorrectly reported based on comments and memos from Grand Lake’s public meetings. On April 12, town staff said that they misspoke in March and that it was actually town staff who received complaints about Constitution Week and sought trustees’ guidance on the grant application.