CLEARWATER — The Clearwater City Council on Monday morning canceled city staffers' plan to remove several flagpoles and American flags from city property — a plan that drew harsh criticism over the weekend.
"We're going to leave all the flags as is," Mayor Frank Hibbard said after a lengthy and contentious discussion on the topic.
Council members criticized City Manager Bill Horne for not letting them know about the plan. Instead, they first learned about it from the St. Petersburg Times. Council member George Cretekos said that Horne embarrassed the city by assuming the flags could be removed discreetly and without controversy.
Horne publicly apologized, saying that not informing the council was a mistake on his part.
However, council members also defended Horne, the city's staff and the city of Clearwater from accusations of being unpatriotic. 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, over 260 readers posted comments, with several calling for city officials to be summarily fired.
Horne, a former U.S. Air Force colonel, served 27 years in the military. "I personally have a flag at my home that I fly 24/7," the city manager said.
Barraged by fierce criticism, city officials attempted to more fully explain their flag-removal plan and put it in context.
Contrary to previous reports by the city, officials said Monday that only one flagpole had been taken down so far. A 55-foot pole on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway was removed after passing drivers complained that the American flag atop it wasn't properly lit. But the city was having trouble lighting such a high flag without potentially blinding oncoming drivers. The city said Monday it intends to replace that flagpole with a shorter one.
Clearwater officials stressed this morning that roughly a dozen out of more than 50 flags maintained by the city were slated to be taken down, with numerous others still flying above fire stations, libraries and prominent city buildings.
City staffers said they began reviewing the city's flag policies after getting complaints about the conditions of some flags that were on display. Federal flag code requires that American flags be displayed in public from sunrise to sunset, or they should be lit at night if they're displayed 24 hours a day. Officials looked at how many flags Clearwater maintains, and whether all of them are necessary.
Flagpoles were slated to be removed at several facilities controlled by the parks and recreation department. Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's parks and recreation director, ordered their removal last week, saying budget cuts made it impossible to properly care for the flags. He said his staff has been cut from 247 employees in 2006 to 191 today, so resources had to be shifted.
Dunbar didn't speak at Monday's meeting. Instead, Rick Carnley, an assistant director of operations, took the council through a list of flags that staffers intended to remove.
He said a couple were at parks maintenance facilities rarely visited by the public. Other locations, such as the small Sand Key Bay Park, are near other American flags that are on public display, Carnley said. At a couple of places like the city's Ross Norton Recreation Complex, flags are inside the building and outside.
City Council members were mollified by the staffers' explanations, but they were still displeased with how the matter had been handled. They put a halt to the plan.
Council member Paul Gibson suggested that the city keep some flags lit through the night instead of having a worker take them up and down every morning and evening.
Mayor Hibbard thanked the veterans groups and others who volunteered over the weekend to help care for the city's American flags. Instead of taking them up on that offer at this time, the council instead 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 put up some new ones 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."