CLEARWATER — Stung by fierce criticism, the Clearwater City Council on Monday canceled a plan to remove about a dozen flagpoles and American flags from city property to save money.
"We're going to leave all the flags as is," Mayor Frank Hibbard said after a lengthy and contentious discussion of the topic at a council meeting Monday morning.
Council members criticized City Manager Bill Horne for not telling them about the flag removal plan that city staffers had come up with. Instead, the council first learned about it from the St. Petersburg Times. Council member George Cretekos said Horne had embarrassed the city by assuming the flags could be removed discreetly and without controversy.
Horne publicly apologized, saying that not informing the council had been a mistake on his part.
However, the City Council also defended Horne and the city's parks and recreation director from accusations that they're unpatriotic. A former Air Force colonel, Horne served 27 years in the military.
"I personally have a flag at my home that I fly 24/7," the city manager said.
Public reaction to news of the impending flag removal has been heavy and harsh. After the Times posted the story on its Web site, tampabay.com, on Friday, nearly 300 readers posted comments over the weekend, with many calling for Clearwater officials to be summarily fired. City leaders also got what the mayor described as "an unrelenting volume of phone calls."
On Monday, officials attempted to more fully explain their flag removal plan and to put it in context. They stressed that about a dozen out of nearly 60 American flags maintained by the city were slated to be taken down, with numerous others still flying above fire stations, libraries and prominent city buildings.
Contrary to previous reports by the city, officials said Monday that only one flagpole had actually been taken down so far. A 55-foot pole alongside the Clearwater Memorial Causeway was removed Friday after passing motorists complained that the American flag atop it wasn't properly lit at night. Workers had trouble illuminating that particular flag without potentially blinding oncoming drivers. The city now intends to replace that flagpole with a shorter one.
Federal flag code requires that Old Glory not be displayed in public between dusk and dawn unless the flagpole is lighted. After Clearwater got some complaints about the condition of some of its flags, a committee of city staffers began looking at how many flags Clearwater maintains and whether all of them are necessary.
They singled out several flags at facilities managed by the parks and recreation department. So Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's parks and recreation director, suggested the flags' removal last week, saying budget cuts had made it impossible to properly care for them. He noted that his staff has been cut from 247 employees in 2006 to 191 today.
The City Council had some of the same questions that the public has posed — namely, how much could it possibly cost to maintain a flag, anyway?
City staff said it's hard to say what it costs precisely, though it does eat up staff hours to raise and lower the flags every day.
Dunbar didn't speak at Monday's meeting. Instead, Rick Carnley, an assistant director of operations, took the City Council through a list of flagpoles that staffers intended to remove.
He said a couple were at parks maintenance facilities rarely visited by the public. Some of the locations, such as the small Sand Key Bay Park, are near other American flags that are showcased in more prominent spots, Carnley said. And at a couple of places such as the city's Long Center swimming facility or its Ross Norton Recreation Complex, flags are both inside the building and outside.
City Council members were mostly mollified by the staff's explanations, but they were still displeased with how the matter had been handled. They put a halt to the plan to remove the flags.
Council member Paul Gibson suggested the city keep flags lit at night instead of having employees drive around taking them up and down every morning and evening.
Hibbard thanked local veterans groups and numerous other people who had volunteered to help care for the city's American flags. Instead of taking them up on that offer at this time, the council called for a thorough review of all the city's flagpoles, with the thought that Clearwater might remove some little-seen flags at some point, but it might counterbalance that by putting up new flags in more prominent places.
"At 7 o'clock Saturday morning, I had a 92-year-old veteran knocking on my door. This veteran stormed Normandy, and he wanted to know what he could do to help the city of Clearwater fly the American flag," Cretekos said. "The staff is probably right that the city of Clearwater doesn't need to have a flag at every building, every park or major intersection. But the thinking is wrong when it is argued that a flag should be removed because the government cannot afford it."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.