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Rizzo, Columbus statue defenders are back in court, challenging city handling of memorials

Supporters of the statutes of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo and Christopher Columbus have challenged the city in court over the memorials.

Attorney George Bochetto
Attorney George BochettoRead moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Defenders of the controversial statues of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo and explorer Christopher Columbus have gone back to court to challenge how the city covered up a memorial to Columbus and to demand that it return to them the now-removed statue of Rizzo.

On Thursday, George Bochetto, lawyer for South Philadelphia residents who support keeping an 1876 stone statue of Columbus in Marconi Plaza, filed a legal motion asking a judge to order that the city replace the new protective plywood sheathing the statue with acyrlic glass. The wood was put up last month after the statue became the scene of heated clashes between protesters and supporters of Columbus.

Bochetto, representing a group called the Friends of Marconi Plaza, a park at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, filed the motion with Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick. The judge had brokered an agreement between Bochetto and the city two weeks ago in which the city reaffirmed that it would hold a public process to debate the future of the statue. A few days after that, Mayor Jim Kenney publicly called for removing the statue from city land.

The city Art Commission is to review the fate of the Columbus statue during a hearing July 22. Bochetto is arguing that the city Historical Commission must also vote on the statue’s future.

On Wednesday, Bochetto filed a separate legal motion regarding the Rizzo statue. This sought a judicial order returning the Rizzo statue to a group that the lawyer said originally donated it to the city.

Kenney has been outspoken in his criticism of the Rizzo memorial, which city crews removed in the middle of the night on June 3 from its perch across from City Hall.

Spokesperson Mike Dunn said Wednesday in an email regarding Bochetto’s filing: “They are bitter and disgruntled because we took it down and the statue will never stand on city property again. This ‘emergency’ lawsuit is a frivolous cry for public attention. The city has more pressing things to worry about — like dismantling the structural racism that the statue stood for.”

Bochetto represented the Frank L. Rizzo Monument Committee in his filing. A leader of the group is Jody Della Barba, a South Philadelphia activist and former secretary to Rizzo.

At the city’s request, jurisdiction over the motion was moved Thursday from Common Pleas Court to the federal courts. The city contends that federal judges must resolve constitutional due process issues. The dispute is now before U.S. District Judge Darnell Jones, Bochetto said.

In another development, State Rep. Martina White, a Republican from a district in Northeast Philadelphia, has written Kenney to say city park officials must review the removal of any city statues. Bochetto provided a copy of the letter to The Inquirer.