Monday, September 6, 2010

Select Board Remains Calm and Collegial but Courts Controversy Over Commemorative Flags for 9-11 Anniversary

Although the Select Board has been maintaining its reputation as a calm, collegial, and prudent organ of town government, we at least dipped our collective toes into the tide of controversy at a special meeting on Thursday night.

In the wake of the Town Manager’s decision to retire, we echoed uniformly enthusiastic citizen comment in praise of Assistant Town Manager John Musante, though postponing any formal decision regarding the succession until our next regularly scheduled meeting, so as to allow for maximum public input (1, 2). Consensus and satisfaction reigned. The controversy involved the (apparently eternal) question of whether and how to mark the anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

"Amherst Select Board rejects resident Larry Kelley's request to fly commemorative American flags on Sept. 11," read the article title.

The talkbacks on the newspaper web page contained the predictable overwhelmingly hostile comment in often venomous terms. One may think what one will of the decision, but it is certainly regrettable that some people believe Amherst declines to fly the American flag, which it certainly does not. The flag, as was pointed out at the meeting (and in at least one newspaper article) flies every day in front of Town Hall and at fire and police stations. The debate turned only on the display of additional commemorative flags on the date in question.

true, the UN flag flies in Amherst (at left), but not in place of the US flag (at right)
beneath the US flag flies the Vietnam POW-MIA flag
 Here’s what happened.

On Monday, resident Larry Kelley, as he had promised, brought forward his annual request that commemorative American flags be flown on September 11 (video here). Because he did so during public comment rather than in the framework of a formal agenda item announced in advance, Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe explained that, under the Open Meeting Law, we could only hear but not take action on the request. The unexpected announcement of the Town Manager’s retirement later that evening then necessitated a special meeting, which, I suggested, could provide an opportunity to address the flag request, as well.

The history of the flag issue is a long and needlessly contentious or embarrassing one. As those who follow Amherst politics will know, it began with a combination of unfortunate timing and intemperate remarks. On September 10, 2001, a Select Board discussion of a request for public display of special commemorative American flags beyond the nominally authorized dates prompted some public comment highly critical of both the flag and the country. Although only a few individuals made the  remarks in question and the town policy had nothing to do with an event that had not yet happened, the resultant press coverage was a PR disaster for the town. In 2002 and 2003, the Select Board voted to fly additional flags on the anniversary of the attacks. Thereafter, opinions about the appropriate means of public commemoration diverged.

In 2007, Town Meeting rejected Mr, Kelley’s warrant article requesting the annual display of the additional flags on the anniversary date. In 2008, faced with another request from Mr. Kelley, the Select Board opted for a compromise that observers variously viewed as either Solomonic or moronic: because only one third of Town Meeting members had voted for the warrant article, it was decided that we would henceforth fly the commemorative flags on September 11 only every third year.

Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe began Thursday’s meeting by reviewing the above history of flag policy and controversy.

I spoke briefly in favor of hearing Mr. Kelley’s request, for three simple reasons:
1) We should make every effort to address citizen requests.
2) The 2008 compromise was not really satisfactory on logical or other grounds. Either the event was worth commemorating, or it was not.
3) Congress had declared and presidents had proclaimed the date "Patriot Day" in 2001, and in 2009, a "National Day of Service and Remembrance," as well.  President Obama's proclamation called the occasion, on which flags are to fly at half-staff, "an opportunity to salute the heroes of 9/11, recapture the spirit of unity and compassion that inspired our Nation following the attacks, and rededicate ourselves to sustained service to our communities."
Mr. Kelley then spoke at some length in favor of his measure, (video here) describing key historical tragedies, from the Kennedy assassination to the Munich Olympic massacre and the Oklahoma City bombing, which had influenced his world view. As a teenager, he had been dismayed to see the once peaceful world of sport become a battleground. And, despite his sympathy for the cause of Irish Catholics, he had been revolted when the IRA turned to wanton terror against civilians. The 9-11 terror attacks were for him the culmination of that murderous evolution and deserving of permanent commemoration.

• Select Board member Diana Stein noted that she was perhaps one of the few here who had had a family member in lower Manhattan on that day, still traumatized by the events. She also had a relative currently serving in the military. She was  opposed to anything that might seem celebratory and would consent only to flying flags at half-staff.

• Select Board member Aaron Hayden began by noting that he had lost two close friends on 9-11: one in one of the towers, and one in one of the aircraft. He took an entirely original approach, saying that he would fly commemorative flags neither on 9-11 nor on some of the currently designated days. Instead, he proposed (along with rationales for each): Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, July 4, 22 September (women get the vote), 20 November (Gettysburg), and 9 December (Human Rights Day). Ms. O’Keeffe reminded him that we could address only the issue on the agenda, and not craft a whole new holiday calendar

In public comment, labor activist and union president Tina Swift, sitting amicably next to Mr. Kelley and noting that she often disagreed with him on other political issues, spoke warmly in favor of his proposal: “This flag represents us, it represents all of us, in our diversity.” 9-11 was, she said, “the American Holocaust.” The comparison is, in strict historical terms, Inappropriate, but she indicated that she meant it in a psychological sense: the most deadly and traumatic event in recent US history. John Coull likewise supported the request: it is “reasonable” and does no harm, whereas the annual debate is “wasteful” and the current “compromise borders on the silly.”

Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe then noted that she came from a patriotic family (Mr. Coull is her father); in fact, she herself flew the flag every day at her home. However, she recognized that the additional official display of the flag in the town had become a contentious issue, and so, she necessarily made a distinction between her personal views and public policy.

• Select Board member Diana Stein moved that we maintain the current policy. The motion found no second.

• Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe then moved that we mark the occasion only at milestone intervals of 5 years: thus, starting on the tenth anniversary in 2011.

Select Member Alisa Brewer spoke against the motion, saying, “I just have a really hard time saying no” to a reasonable citizen request, “when it does no harm.” I concurred. I could see no objection to flying the flag if requested to do so, and it seemed to me that if a tragedy was worth commemorating, then it was worth doing so every year. The two of us had independently found and circulated President Obama’s proclamation. Its call for public service as a form of commemoration seemed an admirable idea in itself and one around which Amherst residents of various persuasions could, one hoped, come together.

The O’Keeffe motion passed by a vote of 3-2, with Hayden, O’Keeffe, and Stein in favor. Ms. Brewer and I voted “nay” for the aforementioned reasons.

It’s a shame that the town cannot manage to come together on this issue one way or another. That said, it is encouraging that the debates that did take place—frustrating as they may have been to some on all sides—turned on rather narrow philosophical or procedural issues. There were no discourteous attacks on individuals. There was no ugly comment, from either Select Board or general public, about the flag and the country, of the sort that so embarrassed us in 2001 on the eve of the terrorist attacks. On the contrary, everyone who spoke honored the victims, just as we did on Memorial Day. And, on September 11, even though the special flags will not adorn the light poles (as they do today, on Labor Day), the large American flag will fly in front of Town Hall as it does every day.  There will be moreover a commemorative event at the main fire station, just one of several in the region.

All in all, as several citizens told us, it was still a pretty calm, rational, and respectful discussion of a controversial issue. If you're looking for real political controversy, you might try gazing across the river to Northampton, where the city council has been debating an end to funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the process generating even more comment.


Larry Kelley said...

Diana Stein's main concern and why she voted no was because she believes the commemorative flags can't be placed at half staff.

Notice Izzy Lyman in her 9/17/01 article "Amherst's bad timing" quotes Dave Keenan verifying the flags were indeed put up at half staff on that awful morning.

It just takes a little more effort. And remembering 9/11 is worth the effort.

Jim Wald said...

Thanks, Larry. Yes, I was trying to convey that aspect of her concern and vote. You help to make it clearer.

Larry Kelley said...

So maybe if she is still a Select Person in 2012 she will change her vote (or come up with a better excuse).

Tom Porter said...

Jim, I thank you for your thoughtful vote. As one who disagrees strongly with the majority opinion in this issue, I was pleased to see Diana and Stephanie, along with Alisa, join the memorial observance at the Amherst Fire Station at 9:45 this morning.

There are many, many, many people in this town who line up to show the flag, who fly it in their front yards, and who remember friends and victims on this day - even in Amherst. The SB will continue to grapple with this important issue until it is finally resolved respectfully. Thank you for your voice in the discussion, now and in the future.

Jim Wald said...

Thanks, Tom. I appreciate your measured reaction to our deliberations, too. As the presence of several Select Board members at the ceremony this morning should indicate, the differences of opinion about the flag display do not indicate a difference of opinion about the victims of the attacks.

I myself, regrettably, had an obligatory annual meeting, but on my way this morning, I saw the citizens and their flags in the center of town.