Date: March 7, 2008
Byline: Chipp Reid
Ridgefield has flap over flag
What started off as a way to honor the death of a beloved former town official turned into a problem that reached all the way to Hartford.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi had no idea when he lowered the U.S. flag in front of town hall to half-staff on Feb. 26 when Dr. Peter Yanity died that his actions violated the law.
By lowering the flag, however, Mr. Marconi did run contrary to the National Flag Code, a quasi-official though unenforced set of protocols on how to treat the American flag.
And the flag police were watching.
"I did what we've always done in this town as a sign of respect," Mr. Marconi said. "No one ever complained about it before. This time I lower the flag and the next thing I know I am getting phone calls and e-mails saying I can't do that."
Mr. Marconi received a pair of calls from town residents who said he did not have the authority to lower the flag to half-staff, no matter how deserving the individual.
According to the National Flag Code, only the President and, more recently, a state governor can order the flag lowered.
The complainants, whom no one would name, said even though Dr. Yanity, as a veteran and long-time town official, deserved half-staff recognition, Mr. Marconi simply did not have the authority to order the flags lowered.
The two pointed Mr. Marconi and his assistant, Wendy Leonetti, to www.ushistory.org, which contains synopses of and links to the National Flag Code. The site rather explicitly states no mayor or first selectman has the flag-lowering authority
Convinced, Mr. Marconi went outside and raised the flag back to full staff, and once more, the flag police were watching, only a different set.
"No sooner did I put the flag back up that I am getting e-mails and calls from people asking me what I'm doing," Mr. Marconi said. "I told them I didn't have the authority to lower the flag and the next I know, I spend all my morning researching my authority to raise or lower a flag."
While the first complaints about the flag were over authority, the louder cries were about respect. Selectman Joan Plock, in a series of e-mails, said she could think of no one more deserving of the town's recognition than Dr. Yanity and also questioned whether "laws" really prevented Mr. Marconi from lowering the flag.
"It was stated that only the Governor or President can (lower a flag)," Ms. Plock said. "That doesn't make a great deal of sense to me since the governor would have to spend a lot of time responding to the 169 towns over flags."
E-mail flew around town, all requesting some sort of legal opinion over just who really could or could not order a flag to half-staff. One of those e-mails landed on the desk of attorney Bob Jewell of the law firm of Donnelly, McNamara & Gustafson.
"I thought it was a nice gesture," he said. "I know the town has been doing it for years. I was actually surprised to find out the first selectman couldn't lower the flag."
Mr. Jewell said he did some quick research and came across just one state statute that deals with flags: 10-230. The statute allows a town's "chief executive" to order schools to lower their flags to half-staff if flags in front of municipal buildings are also at half-staff.
Just to add to some of the confusion, the Office of Legislative Research of the Connecticut General Assembly commissioned a study in 2004 to look into banner authority. According to the office's Chief Attorney Sandra Norman-Eady, who referred to the National Flag Code, "The rules and customs codified in these provisions are merely advisory and do not proscribe conduct. The statutes do not deprive the various states of the power to regulate the conduct of their citizens towards the U.S. flag, including the power to impose punishments for violations."
In other words, Mr. Marconi could lower the flag if he wanted to without fear of punishment.
Do the right thing
The American Legion, which put together the National Flag Code in 1919, backed the first selectman's actions. Robert Tulipani, of the Everett Ray Seymour Post 78 of the Legion, said he thought Dr. Yanity's death more than justified lowering the flag.
"If anybody deserved it, it would be Dr. Peter Yanity," Mr. Tulipani said. "I agree with what Rudy did. Peter was a loyal veteran, a selectman for 18 years, president of Community Center, the Lions Club, the Boys and Girls Club. I can't believe anybody could get upset by lowering the flag for him."
The seemingly endless set of opinions led Mr. Marconi to drop the flag flap in the lap of Gov. M. Jodi Rell. He contacted Ridgefield State Rep. John Frey and asked him to ask the governor for an opinion. When it arrived, it confirmed what the original complainants said, with one caveat.
"The governor said we could lower the state flag," Mr. Marconi said. "We could only lower, however, on the day of the funeral until noon."
Since the town doesn't fly a state flag, Mr. Marconi on March 3 — the day of Mr. Yanity's funeral — lowered the U.S. flag in front of town hall.
"Since we don't have a state flag, I didn't have any problem with that," Mr. Marconi said.
In the future, however, Mr. Marconi said he intends to stick by the national flag protocol, even if it means breaking a longstanding town tradition.
"Why even have a code if you're not going to follow it," Mr. Marconi said. "Still, I don't think anyone deserved the honor more than Dr. Yanity."
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