She said Ridgefield shouldn't name award after 'old white guy.' Now, she's being called on to resign

Architect Cass Gilbert bought the old tavern in 1907.
Architect Cass Gilbert bought the old tavern in 1907.Contributed Photo

RIDGEFIELD — Some residents are calling for a member of the Economic Development Commission to resign over her comments that an award shouldn’t be named after “an old white guy.” 

Katharine Gelfman’s remarks resurfaced at an October Board of Selectmen meeting and were made during the commission’s Aug. 1 discussion regarding naming a distinguished award after a deserved person.

When members suggested naming the award after 20th century architect Cass Gilbert, who lived in Ridgefield, Gelfman, an elected member of the commission, said on several occasions that "you shouldn't name the award after an old white guy."

Gelfman has since apologized for the statement and said it was intended to emphasize "the importance of diversity and inclusion in our activities."

Community members have since emailed the Board of Selectmen about the comments, with some residents calling on her to resign or lose her position on the commission. 

At the very end of a recent selectman meeting, when the comment was brought up, Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark said making comments like that are "not appropriate."

"It was rude and it should not have happened," she said.  

Naming the award

At the commission meeting, members discussed who should be honored with a cultural district award the commission is considering making annual. The town of Ridgefield was the first municipality in the state to have a designated cultural district.

Member Geoffrey Morris suggested naming the award, whose purpose is to annually honor someone who has made a significant contribution to the Ridgefield Cultural District, after Gilbert.  

"One of Ridgefield's early cultural icons, Cass Gilbert was an architect whose creativity was a major driver of economic activity. Designing the Woolworth Building, the U.S. Supreme Court House and the (Cass Gilbert) Fountain that welcomes visitors to Ridgefield," Morris said at the meeting, which can be viewed at the town's YouTube channel.

He said to recognize that honor, the commission will add the individual's name to a permanent sculpture installation in front of Town Hall on Main Street.

However, Gelfman said the award shouldn't be named "right now after an old white guy."

Member Jonathan Winn said Gilbert has "a certain stature" and said "there aren't a lot of others of that stature that I can think of that aren't old white guys."

"Yes, that is a problem," said Gelfman, who was appointed to the commission for a one-year term in July. The commission is chaired by town resident Glori Norwitt.

Especially after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, communities have aimed to try to honor their diversity and the accomplishments of people that may have historically gone unrecognized. For example, Danbury created a mural in its downtown to celebrate Marian Anderson, a singer who broke racial barriers. 

At the commission meeting, members discussed individuals they felt could be alternatives to Gilbert, such as the late Betsy Armstrong award. Armstrong conducted the underground railroad. They also considered Ridgefield Playhouse Executive Director Allison Stockel as a possible recipient. 

At the end of the discussion, by a vote of 4 to 0, members unanimously voted to name the new honor the “The Cultural District Award.”

Backlash

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said at the Board of Selectmen meeting that Gelfman’s comments were the “wrong thing to be said.” 

He added he spoke to the commission members about the comment.

In a phone conversation Monday, Marconi said, "We will not tolerate those kinds of statements being made in public meetings."

He said, however, Gelfman's comment shouldn't be grounds for her removal from the board.

He added if it happens again, "that's not a mistake. I would say the first one can be a mistake that people make. Beyond that, if it happens again, no question, removal would be justified. Absolutely."

Resident Mike Raduazzo, however, said there should be more serious repercussions for Gelfman's comment and suggested she step down from her position on the commission. As an “almost 60-year-old white guy,” he said he was personally offended by the comment. 

"This was not an off-the-cuff statement made by one person and dropped,” said Raduazzo, who chairs the Republican Town Committee, but said he was not speaking on the local party’s behalf. “The fact that it became the basis for the discussion of the naming of the Cultural District Award went on for several minutes with the offensive statement used by several other members in the discussion is very disturbing.” 

He added that it was “absolutely disgusting” to be “denigrating old white men.”  

"What have old white men done to deserve this type of treatment by anyone, nevertheless an appointed member of a town committee?” Raduazzo said. “Is this the way the members of the ECDC see their neighbors and friends who may be of the age to fall into that category?”

He suggested that the community would have reacted differently if she had “replaced old with another age group, white with another race and man with woman.”

Raduazzo said he sent a follow-up email to the selectmen, suggesting "if Cass Gilbert were that offensive a person to name the award after,” then they might consider John Frey, the former state representative who Raduazzo credited for getting Ridgefield’s Cultural District designation. 

“In fact, the award should not only be named after him but he should also be the first recipient,” Raduazzo said. “At the end of the day, they never landed on someone to name the award after but what they did do was discriminate against an entire segment of society.”

Raduazzo added he was disappointed with the way the matter was handled when it was brought up at the selectmen meeting.

"The fact that the BOS handles it late in the meeting and spent very little time discussing it was unacceptable," he said.

Apology

In response to the incident, Gelfman apologized in an email on Monday. 

"During a recent ECDC discussion about the naming of a Cultural District Award, I made a comment which some in the community may have found offensive," Gelfman said. "I sincerely apologize to anyone who may have been hurt by my comment, which was intended to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion in our activities."

A statement issued Monday by the ECDC referencing the incident, said, "one of our Commissioners made an inartful comment for which she has apologized, and which does not reflect the position of the ECDC."

The statement additionally said, the ECDC "believes strongly that (the  comment) should not detract from the important work that the Commission is undertaking to help accelerate Ridgefield’s economic development so that our town can be a better place to live, work and play for generations to come."