Date: August 5, 2009
Byline: Gene Maddaus
Carson strips mayor of power to lower U.S. flag to half-staff
The city of Carson has stripped the mayor of the power to lower the U.S. flag to half-staff after an uproar over Mayor Jim Dear's decision to honor pop superstar Michael Jackson.
Dear ordered the U.S. flag outside City Hall lowered to half-staff on July 7, the date of Jackson's funeral.
That prompted an outcry from local veterans and experts on flag protocol, who pointed out that mayors have no authority to lower the flag under the U.S. Flag Code.
"I got e-mails, letters sent to me, and phone calls," Dear said, noting the communication was about 80 percent negative. "To me, it's a generational thing. Michael Jackson appeals to a younger generation of people, and an older generation has no interest."
Dear was acting under a city policy, in place since 1996, that included the provisions of the Flag Code but also allowed the mayor to order flags to half-staff when deemed "proper."
But as several critics pointed out, the Flag Code gives that power only to the president. Governors may also order the flag to half-staff upon the death of an active-duty serviceman or a current or former state official.
The code is a guideline and violations are not enforceable but they are viewed as a breach of etiquette. A letter published in the Daily Breeze called lowering the flag for Jackson "a ridiculous idea."
Doug Heller, a Pennsylvania man who maintains a Web site on flag protocol, contacted Dear after he heard several complaints about the incident.
Heller's Web site (ushistory.org/flag) includes a Wall of Shame that displays violations of the code. Over the years, Heller has gotten involved in a handful of cases in which local officials have improperly ordered flags to half-staff.
"It does bother me to see the trivialization of the flag," Heller said. "When you see it on T-shirts, underwear, and golf clubs, it loses the power of the symbol."
Usually violations are noncontroversial. For example, mayors will often lower the flag to honor a slain police officer, which few would find objectionable. In another example, the mayor of Buffalo ordered the flag to half-staff when NBC newsman Tim Russert died.
In such cases, Heller suggested it is more appropriate to lower the city flag.
In the face of the complaints, Dear took the matter to the city's Veterans Affairs Commission. He invited Heller to participate via conference call, and together they hammered out a change in the city's policy.
The council approved the change on a 5-0 vote Tuesday night.
"If I had it to do over again, I would put the city flag at half-staff," Dear said, adding that the incident is now "water under the bridge."
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