Swissvale Borough Councilmember Abigail Salisbury isn’t sure why Fire Chief Clyde Wilhelm directed what she considers antisemitic comments at her during an April 27 council meeting.
The exchange happened during a discussion about whether the community should know what borough employees have been vaccinated. On a video of the council meeting, Salisbury is seen discussing what events would be necessary to alert the public that borough employees aren’t vaccinated.
Wilhelm responds to her statement saying: “The pandemic is over, and you are asking us to show you our papers. That’s reminiscent of something that happened a long time ago that didn’t turn out really well.”
Salisbury, who is Jewish, responded saying, “I’m going to really hope that you’re not saying having to show a vaccination card is equivalent to some sort of Nazi regime.”
“What I’m saying is, you’re asking me to show my papers to show up to an event,” Wilhelm replied before Salisbury said she wasn’t going to continue the conversation, calling it unproductive, and Council President Christopher Ansell stopped the discussion.
After the meeting, Salisbury again referenced the comments by Wilhelm, saying she was bothered by his statement, noting that Jews often are a forgotten group in conversations of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Salisbury said she was taken aback by the comments because she has not been the most ardent advocate for COVID vaccinations.
“He chose to focus on me. I’m the only Jew on council. People know I’m Jewish,” she said.
The council member said this wasn’t the first time Wilhelm directed what she considers to be antisemitic comments at her.
“I had a previous instance with him. After a public meeting when we were walking back through the borough offices. He said something to me like, ‘Why are you people always trying to crucify everybody?’ because I have a reputation for calling people out during council meetings.”
Salisbury said she’s concerned about Wilhelm’s comments because he is both the fire chief and works in the code enforcement office. She was quick to point out that there have been no formal claims of discrimination against the office but noted that it is often the public’s first interaction with the borough.
“If you want to talk about liability for the borough, allowing somebody to blatantly make antisemitic comments to a council member in an open meeting — if you’re making these kinds of comments in open meetings, what are you saying behind closed doors,” she asked.
The interaction has had a snowball effect in the borough.
At the May 4 council meeting, Weldianne Scales, chairperson of the borough’s Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Committee, opened the meeting reading a statement saying, in part, that Wilhelm’s comments “cast a dark cloud over the progressive strides that we have made to become a more inclusive and diverse community.”
Ansell noted that he met with the fire chief on May 3 and communicated the serious nature of his comments.
He then continued with the public comments of the meeting (which are read by Ansell because the borough’s meetings are conducted virtually). He said there were two comments, from Miranda Crotsley and Bonnie Spoales, which he wouldn’t read on the advice of solicitor Robert McTiernan, which addressed Wilhelm’s comments at the previous meeting.
Salisbury pushed back, calling the refusal to read the comments censorship and pointed out that no public comments had ever been restricted. After a lengthy exchange, the meeting continued without the comments being heard.
Crotsley, who is on the leadership team of the Swissvale Community Action Committee, said she’s concerned that the borough is attempting to silence public comments.
“There shouldn’t be any restrictions. They want to take away the ability to comment during a meeting,” she said.
She said in addition to concerns over censorship, the comments made by Wilhelm worried her, and that she was appalled that his comments weren’t addressed during the meeting by anyone on council other than Salisbury.
Ansell said he understood the outrage, but that the comments were made quickly during the meeting and that only near the end of the session when Salisbury spoke about the incident did he connect the dots.
“I appreciated her sharing her experience because, as someone who isn’t part of the Jewish community, that comment kind of bypassed my awareness; as someone from a different perspective, it wasn’t as clear,” he said.
The council president said he spent time following the meeting on the Anti-Defamation League website educating himself.
Ansell said it was because of the solicitor’s advice that he opted not to read the public comments submitted by the two residents. He noted that he invited them to the next council meeting where they could voice their concerns.
Crotsley said she received the invitation but hasn’t responded because she has seen no public information on how the public comment portion of the meeting would be handled and that she was more concerned about ensuring the possibility of future censorship was eliminated.
She noted that the SCAC has begun circulating a petition advocating for disciplinary action for Wilhelm and transparency of censored public comments, along with the demand that the council create an avenue for public comments to be read in the future.
And while Salisbury isn’t sure why Wilhelm directed his antisemitic comments at her, she is sure Swissvale isn’t alone in confronting hate.
“Everywhere has an antisemitism problem,” she said. “People don’t talk about that much. It’s this forgotten form of discrimination. People think it’s something from the past, from the ’30s and ’40s, and that it’s gone. After Tree of Life, it became evident to people that we didn’t make this up. I don’t think we necessarily have a unique antisemitism problem. I think there’s a casual antisemitism that is OK for a lot of people.”
Swissvale Fire Chief Clyde Wilhelm did not respond to interview requests from the Chronicle. Solicitor Robert McTiernan was unavailable for comment. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org