DEBATE AT 22 MAIN
By JENNIFER HILL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – A month after voting unanimously to fly the Pride Flag on the flagpole next June, village trustees once again debated and, in the end, affirmed their decision.
“I gave every member of this board every opportunity to table this motion,” said Trustee MacGuire Benton, who introduced the resolution at the board’s July meeting. “For any vote you can have a discussion. We don’t need a unique, complex way to vote on flags.”
The debates started when the board’s “Adhoc Committee on Vexillology,” chaired by Benton, introduced a policy intended to give the Board guidance and clarity when taking up future proposals to fly flags. But the committee’s resolution on “the Display of Flags at Village Facilities” had the opposite effect.
“The policy doesn’t provide a process by which proposals for flying flags will be made, presented, deliberated on, for the rest of them,” said Trustee Joseph Membrino.
He said the board should table proposals on flying specific flags before voting on them, so there would be “a waiting period” and time for the public to weigh in.
Trustee Richard Sternberg pointed out trustees can “use the operating system of board” to discuss resolutions after a motion is made and seconded and that they could have voted to table voting on it.
Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch had asked Benton to form a committee to develop a policy on flying flags after Sternberg said earlier this month he would propose flying the POW/MIA flag in November.
Trustee Cynthia Falk, a committee member, modeled the policy on one developed by Pittsburg, Calif., which addressed the same issue: flying the Pride Flag and other banners on municipal property.
A section in the policy that sparked much of the debate stipulates the “Village’s flagpoles are not intended to serve as a forum for free expression by the public” but as “an expression of the Village’s official sentiments.”
“The idea that the only portal into this flag flying opportunity is to become a trustee just displays a problem with what we’re doing,” Membrino said.
“If a member of the public had proposed flying the Pride Flag, it would have opened it up to public commentary,” Falk responded. “But since a trustee had proposed it, only the Village weighed in on it.”
Village Attorney Martin Tillapaugh raised another issue: The trustees can approve any flag they like; the problem will arise when they say no to a flag, even the Confederate one. “There could be issue of censorship,” he warned.
If the Village Board were sued, it would lose the case, he said.
The mayor proposed voting for the POW/MIA flag proposal and delaying a vote on the flag-display policy until the Board’s September meeting despite saying earlier she felt “it was a very strong policy.”
“Let’s send the policy back for more work that will give us a little more time,” she said.
But the board voted against the mayor’s proposal to table the flag display policy, 4-3, with Tillapaugh, Jeanne Dewey, and Membrino voting “yes” and the remaining trustees – Benton, James Dean, Falk and Sternberg – voting “no.”
The trustees then voted unanimously to fly the POW/MIA flag during the month of November “in perpetuity.”
After the POW/MIA flag vote, the board approved the flag-display policy, 5-1, with Membrino casting the lone opposing vote.
“We’ve opened up Pandora’s Box. Sometimes we have to go ahead and risk it,” said Sternberg.