Since its creation 46 weeks ago, a state commission tasked with recommending changes to Massachusetts’ controversial state seal has met twice. It remains short one appointee, and a state legislator has argued it needs a staff and a budget, neither of which exists. A deadline to submit a report came and went nearly two months ago.
The product of decades of advocacy, the Special Commission Relative to the Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth has been bogged down by Beacon Hill’s familiar morass of bureaucratic hurdles, all while its members wrestle with lingering questions over its mission.
The circumstances have complicated not just when the panel will produce a new vision for Massachusetts’ official symbol but exactly what it will deliver.
Established by the Legislature on Jan. 6 — and approved by Governor Charlie Baker days later — the commission’s focus is Massachusetts’ 19th-century seal, which depicts a colonist’s arm holding a sword above the image of an Algonquian warrior. It’s draped by a Latin motto that roughly translates to: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
The current iteration of the imagery was established by the Legislature in 1885, but has long been criticized by Native Americans and others as a racist depiction of oppression and a memorialization of the “slaughter and attempted genocide” of indigenous people.
When lawmakers adopted language creating the commission during the waning hours of their last two-year session, they realized a proposal former state Representative Byron Rushing had first pushed in the 1980s.
“Our nation’s history has been pretty one-sided for a pretty long time. That’s the whole point of why we’re here. We have been overlooked for over 400 years,” Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, told his fellow commission members during a meeting Nov. 18.
It has left the commission’s members with a high-profile task: to study features of the 136-year-old seal that may be “unwittingly harmful” and make recommendations for a new or revised design.
The panel’s goal is to ensure the motto and seal — emblazoned across everything from the state flag to countless reams of state government stationery — “faithfully reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality,” according to the language.
“That’s a mouthful. That’s a lot to do,” said Melissa (Harding) Ferretti, chairwoman and president of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe and a commission member. “I don’t think we’re totally clear ourselves what we’ll see in the end. We don’t want to erase our vision from the seal or the flag, and further erase us from that picture. At the same time, it would be wonderful to see something more respectful.”
The shorthanded commission has yet to dig into its charge in earnest. Despite a March deadline to make selections for the commission, Baker didn’t submit the last of his five choices until late August. State Senator Bruce E. Tarr, the chamber’s minority leader, has yet to name his only appointee to what’s supposed to be a 19-person panel. (A spokesman for the Gloucester Republican said he hopes to have his pick “wrapped up very soon.”)
There have been other logistical challenges, spurred in part by the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. The commission’s meeting on Nov. 18 was its first since mid-July, the only other time it’s convened. And while members voted to establish co-chairpersons — including one from a tribal community — the commission has yet to select who they’ll be.
In the interim, the panel missed an Oct. 1 deadline to produce its recommendations. The state Senate passed language resetting it for July 31, but lawmakers tucked the change into a sweeping $3.8 billion spending package that remains tied up in closed-door negotiations.
That means getting a new date has, too, been delayed.
State Representative Nika C. Elugardo, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who co-sponsored a bill to create the commission, said she believes a “strong end result” is still more important than the commission’s speed, though she acknowledged slow progress “can be frustrating and should be frustrating.”
“If it is a tortoise and hare situation, the tortoise wins the race,” said Elugardo, who doesn’t sit on the panel but has tracked its progress. “What we don’t want is a mule that comes to a dead stop.”
Setbacks have been common, if not the rule, for legislatively created commissions. A panel created to weigh expanding the public records law, for example, disbanded at the end of 2018 after two years — and one extension — without an agreement. A separate commission created under last year’s police accountability law to study Massachusetts’ civil service statute didn’t hold its first meeting on time.
“I’ve never sat on a commission that’s met a deadline,” said state Representative David T. Vieira, a Falmouth Republican and a state seal commission member.
Still, he questioned whether an extension to July 31 even will provide enough time. “If it’s going to be done right, we need to engage the public,” Vieira said. “I also don’t think it’s something that can be done in a handful of months.”
Commission members, all volunteers, also are grappling with what their actual charge involves: to recommend elements for a new seal and motto, or to design a new version for lawmakers and the governor to consider. Some doubt the latter is possible.
“We don’t have the expertise to do that,” Leonid Kondratiuk, director of historical services and militia affairs for the Massachusetts National Guard and a gubernatorial appointee, said at the Nov. 18 meeting.
State Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat, has informally convened the commission’s first two meetings as the House chairman of the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. But he said it’s unfair to expect the committee staff to also do “all the legwork” the commission would need.
“If we’re going to do this in a very professional way . . . then it’s going to require staff support. It’s going to require, probably, some kind of budget to accommodate what needs to be done,” Cabral said at the meeting, suggesting Baker’s appointees could appeal directly to him.
A spokeswoman for Baker’s office declined to comment.
Cabral, who is also a commission member, said in a statement that his committee would continue to offer support and resources to help the panel. “The task of examining the state seal and motto might not be easy — and might require facing some unpleasant truths of our history and, at times, that may be uncomfortable,” he said. “But I feel this conversation is important.”