Bill O’boyle

WILKES-BARRE — Officials from the local NAACP and other community leaders will petition City Council next week to have City Hall closed in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Day each year.

Ron Felton, president of the local NAACP chapter, said on Wednesday it’s time to properly observe the holiday and recognize King’s efforts not just on behalf of civil rights, but for his work for human rights.

Felton said he and other activists — including representatives from area churches and the Peace and Justice Center Wilkes-Barre — will address Wilkes-Barre City Council when it convenes at 6 p.m. Aug. 14.

“Basically, Dr. King was out there fighting for all the people,” Felton said of the civil rights leader. “He gave his life for this struggle. Closing City Hall is the least we can do to show our respect for him an all that he accomplished.”

Martin Luther King Day will next be observed on Jan. 19, 2015.

City workers now get 12 paid holidays, including Good Friday and the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Liza Prokop issued a brief response when asked for comment from Mayor Tom Leighton.

“I think this has come before council in the past,” Prokop said in an email. “There are union contract issues involved in making the decision to switch days off.”

Felton, 61, bristled at that response, saying he has heard it before from the city going back 20 years.

“That’s the same old line the city has been trying to sell for years and I’m not buying it,” Felton said. “The county tried the same approach, Scranton tried it and Hazleton did the same. And you know what? They added the holiday. Why is it the city of Wilkes-Barre can’t observe this holiday just by adding the day?”

Prokop said Felton is welcome to come to council to present his concerns.

“As far as adding another holiday to the current schedule, Mayor Leighton indicated that the city cannot afford additional time off for city employees at the expense of the taxpayers on top of current holidays, vacation and paid time off,” Prokop said.

Felton said he submitted a right-to-know request to the city asking what the cost would be to close for a holiday and was told $70,000.

“When you’re talking about a $43 million budget, that doesn’t even register as 1 percent. It’s less than a penny per day per taxpayer.”

Felton said King should be remembered and honored for his work on behalf of all Americans.

And as far as the city is concerned, Felton said there are few minority employees working there. But, Felton said, Wilkes-Barre has the largest minority population of any city in the region.

“The focus should be on Dr. King and all of his work and accomplishments on behalf of everybody,” Felton said of the local initiative. “It’s important to celebrate why he deserves this recognition. His focus was on establishing an integrated society that reflects the best in America. That should be important not just to me, but to all of us.”

Felton said he has spoken to school districts in the past on King and his life. He said students study and learn about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and they should learn about King and his work.

“I just think it’s that important,” Felton said. “If we don’t celebrate it like other holidays, it diminishes its importance. Dr. King represents a milestone in history of moving from society of segregation to one of integration.”

Council President Bill Barrett said the issue has been considered before and he said Dr. King is “certainly worthy” of recognition for his work on behalf of all citizens.

“But there are contractual issues,” Barrett said. “The unions would have to agree to switch one or we would have to add another holiday.”

Barrett said the $70,000 cost figure is “probably accurate,” and city employees would welcome an additional paid holiday.

“But until such time that the unions would agree to switch one, then it would be difficult to declare it to be an additional city holiday. But there is no disputing it would be a well-deserved observance.” — (AP)

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