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Removal of Pride Flags from Common Sparks Discussion of Flag Policy

The Burlington Select Board will take another look at a possible non-governmental flag policy for the Town Common after a recent incident involving small Pride flags sparked controversy.

The idea was discussed last summer when some residents expressed interest in having a flag pole that could be used by residents to celebrate different holidays and events but the board eventually decided against it after hearing opposition from local veterans and due to a concern of legal liability if the town were to approve one group’s request but deny another’s petition.

However, the issue came up again this week after an incident of small Pride flags being removed from the Common and a flag draped over the dog sculpture “Havoc” being refolded into a handkerchief. Selectmen said that after residents placed the items on the Common they received some complaints by residents who asked why flags other than the American flag and the Military flags were being allowed.

Select Board Chair Nick Priest said at Monday night’s meeting that the situation came from a mix-up and a lack of communication.

“Our Town Common is not what is deemed a Public Forum,” he said. “We have clear guidelines around the use of the common and how signs are to be handled. We have a process and request form and these are then brought before this Board for approval or denial. The same applies to events. In this case that did not happen.”

Priest said what happened was that residents went to the Sculpture Park Committee and received permission from them to place the flags. The committee gave permission but that was not supposed to extend from the park to the piece on the Common.

“Clearer communication could have course corrected this entire situation rather than where we find ourselves today,” Priest said.

Priest said after he was alerted to the situation he had the flags stuck in the ground removed and the one on Havoc turned into a bandana because they have allowed other bandanas celebrating different holidays to be placed on the sculpture in the past. However, this action received backlash from residents in support of Pride Month, many who were at the meeting to speak about their concerns that it appears the town does not support the LGBTQ+ movement.

Resident Andrea Bono-Bunker, one such community member at the meeting to support having a Pride flag raised on the Common, said it’s a symbol that the town is accepting of all its residents.

“The Pride Flag and Progress flags are symbols of our community,” she said. “I grew up in an unaccepting family – was told I was going to go to hell for being who I am. I think the Progress flag, whenever I see it, it tells me a community is accepting and I am welcome there.”

Everyone else who spoke at the meeting, a discussion that lasted nearly 45 minutes, was in support of the town allowing Pride flags to be displayed on the Common and most pushed for the town itself to raise one in support of the community.

Chairman Priest said that in removing the flags the board was not taking a stance on any issue but wanted everyone to follow the rules. He pointed out that a couple of weeks ago a “Police Lives Matter” sign was posted on the Common and they had that removed as well. The position of the board’s members on these issues, he said, is not a determining factor in whether flags or signs are allowed.

“Whether or not this board would have voted in favor of either of these signs is not the topic,” he said. “What is, is the ability for people to follow the process set forth.”

Finally, Priest said he understands the showing of flags and signs on public spaces is something many groups set out to do for a variety of causes and reasons and that he believes the board should take another look at possibly changing the policy.

“That leads me to the Flag Policy which has been conflated into this situation when it extends beyond the celebration and recognition of Pride Month,” he said. “Town Counsel has informed me that by placing a clear policy and process in place we are no more at risk for being sued because we have a clear policy and procedure. So I would encourage this board to reopen that discussion in light of this new information.”

The town’s Flag Policy will be discussed at a future meeting.