LARGO — At the end of the City Commission's June work session, Commissioner Michael Smith informally requested that the LGBTQ Pride flag be flown in front of City Hall in honor of national Pride month. Aside from a concern from Commissioner Curtis Holmes that it might be setting a bad precedent, commissioners quickly gave their nods of approval and moved on.
The city flag was taken down on June 18 and the Pride flag was raised in its place for the remainder of the month. While most of the feedback was positive, it wasn't long before some opposition was raised and an organization requested its own flag be flown.
So, that five-minute discussion in June would lead to an hourlong one at a recent commission meeting, after officials realized the city didn't have a formal policy on who or what it supports in the form of flag raisings or other means, such as proclamations.
It also prompted a broader discussion on the value of social inclusion and diversity, at the end of which commissioners decided to move forward with the creation of a procedure for planned proclamations, flag raisings and public information campaigns.
"With public recognition, we can make a statement of individuals or groups that we value them in Largo," said Communications and Marketing Manager Kate Oyer, who was tasked with drafting the plan. "We recognize their previous contributions while encouraging and fostering an ongoing partnership and responsibility of building an inclusive community."
The new procedure will use proclamations and public information campaigns to recognize nationally declared events that reflect the population of Largo, Oyer said. The list includes the celebration of African American History in February, National Women's History in March, Asian Pacific American Heritage in May, LGBTQ Pride in June, National Hispanic-Latino Heritage in September and National Native American Heritage in November. LGBTQ Pride is the only one marked by a flag raising, however.
Mayor Woody Brown said he understands that the plan would probably upset some members of the community, but he wants to make Largo a place where everyone feels welcome.
"Regardless of what we do, people are going to be offended, because there's people that still have biases against whatever. And frankly I don't care about that, because I think that we're striving to be a community that welcomes everybody and celebrates the differences," he said.
Smith agreed and added that inclusion will only improve the community.
"I think building that bridge and making us that (community of choice) and telling people we want you to be in Largo, we want to sell our community, we want you to embrace what we're doing here, I think is the most important thing we need to be doing here," he said.
However, in order to avoid any First Amendment conflicts, Oyer said the proposed policy will not accept public requests to raise flags.
"These types of public recognition and social inclusion efforts are exclusively used by the city and City Commission as a form of government expression, not as a form of public expression or free speech," she said.
Therefore, if a commissioner or mayor identifies an opportunity to celebrate, they will bring that before the commission and they can decide through a proclamation to raise a flag in place of the city flag only.
"Bah humbug," Holmes joked before presenting his objections to the city raising flags.
"It's up to us to stay neutral when it comes to the services that we are supplying," he said. "It's not up to us to say we're going to promote this and promote that, because that's actually what you're doing."
He added that city government's main purpose is public safety, and raising flags goes far beyond that.
"I would argue that we're here to be the community of choice in Tampa Bay," Brown responded. "And if that community had police, fire and sanitation, and that was the end of what was offered in the community, it would never aspire to be the community of choice."
Holmes said he had no objections to proclamations, but flag raisings would stir a pot he didn't think was necessary.
"You can do a proclamation at every commission meeting. I don't care," he said. "To me, it doesn't mean anything, but to a lot of folks it's something very important to have. But to go beyond that, I would have a real problem with it because we are no longer neutral."
Vice Mayor John Carroll said he didn't want Largo to turn into ground zero for someone else's movement in another community or even state, but he thinks it's important for the community to know that the city supports it.
"The bottom line for me at least is that we represent the people that live in our community," he said. "And this building we're sitting in and everything else that's a city asset belongs to them. So, if the people we represent want to come to us and ask that something that's important to them be celebrated, then I think that's what we should do."