Painted flag to be removed

DULUTH - News crews didn't camp out on the Duluth Town Green, but the flap over an American flag painted on a city street has drawn its share of media attention.

Ten hours after the Duluth City Council approved the flag's removal from a cul-de-sac where it was painted by neighborhood children, Mayor Shirley Lasseter's phone rang.

The 6:30 a.m. call was from the media, the first of many Lasseter and others involved in the episode would field Wednesday from radio programs, newspaper reporters, television stations and even Geraldo Rivera's people.

"I'll be glad to have this behind us, but that is very sad, too, because that means the flag will be gone, but the law is the law and we have to follow it," Lasseter said Wednesday afternoon.

Don Ogden, 81, who took the city to task over the flag painting because it was on the ground, also looks forward to taking it easy. He said he had a minor heart attack after Tuesday night's meeting because of the stress.

"The whole thing has been stressful to me," said the World War II veteran. "I knew the risk but I didn't want to turn away from the flag."

The large flag was painted by children in the Whitney Park subdivision last year as part of lesson in civics that was supervised by their parents during the Fourth of July holiday.

Flanked by American flags Tuesday night, the Duluth City Council voted unanimously to have the flag removed.

The vote was made begrudgingly by council members who refused to call the image "graffiti."

The flag painting became an issue when residents complained about the image to Duluth City Administrator Phil McLemore.

Some thought the painted flag was a pro-war message, but those who support the image said it was created to teach neighborhood children about patriotism.

Speaking to the council, Linda Hutchinson, a painting supporter, was compelled to defend the image on behalf of the neighborhood.

While she argued the American flag "can in no way be called graffiti" and said research was done to follow proper flag etiquette, she did ask for forgiveness for not asking for permission beforehand and requested the image be allowed to remain in the cul-de-sac.

Others noted it is not an actual flag, therefore does not require the same protection as to how the image is displayed. They referred to the image as art, not a real flag, therefore it should be allowed to remain in the street.

Ogden, who spent time in a German POW camp, said that officially a flag is any image that is recognized as a flag. Since the painting is recognized as such, it should be treated with the same respect that any cloth flag would, he said.

"I think they mean well, but they are teaching their children the wrong message," Ogden said. "A flag should never touch the ground. Every day it is allowed to be there is another day the flag is being disrespected."

The city attorney's office was not concerned with what the symbol was, but with the fact that city property was defaced with paint. By not enforcing the ordinance, less desirable images could be displayed in the future and any action to remove those would be considered discriminatory, it warned.

Rachel Renbarger, 9, who helped paint the flag, tearfully said she was sorry for upsetting anyone and told the council she would "do whatever it takes to remove it." The mayor and council commended Rachel for her courage and suggested she and other children in the community assist with the annual Veterans flags and markers project. Ogden also praised her.

The mayor denounced the idea that the flag was defacing anything and that this is not an issue of graffiti. She urged a nonemotional point of view in resolving the issue.

"We can't destroy ourselves and our city because someone didn't like something," Lasseter said.

In the end, Councilman Jim Dugan recommended the painted flag be removed by April 1. All council members approved the removal, though some grumbled under their breath as they did so.