Thursday, July 16, 2009

Follow-up on July 13th City Council Meeting - Part 1

The July 13th Muskogee City Council meeting was a council meeting to remember. Two very hot topics were on the agenda: charter changes (see previous post), and whether to fly the POW/MIA flag at the Civic Center (I was unaware this was to be discussed, actually).

All of the council meetings I have been to were sparsely attended, and fairly non-controversial. Boy, was this one different! This was this most controversial, most attended, most contentious city council meeting seen in years, perhaps decades.

I knew something was up when both KOTV and KJRH had television crews in the parking lot at City Hall. The crowd of American Legion, military veterans, and motorcycle club members going through the doors also gave a hint of what to expect.

There were over 120 people packed into the Council chambers - literally standing room only, and almost not enough room for people to stand. It was evident that most of the crowd was there for the POW/MIA item, so Mayor Hammons moved for that item to be taken up first, instead of last (its original order in the agenda).

When the Civic Center was remodeled recently, due to lack of funds no flagpole was put up. This created quite a bit of outrage, and on July 2nd they installed a flagpole. In years past, the POW/MIA flew at times at the Civic Center, however, no provision was made for any flag to be flown save the American and Oklahoman flags.

Mayor Hammons' proposal was to fly the POW/MIA flag on the six congressionally mandated days for said flag to be flown on federal property. Councilman Shawn Raper then said that this needed to be brought in the form of an actual ordinance, and since this would be setting a precedent, he wondered how the council would decide which flags could be flown, and which flags could not be flown. Hammons clarified by stating that only flags flown by Congressional order would be flown.

This started a discussion over where to put the flags, and how many flagpoles to be used. During the whole meeting, many councilmen complained of being called unpatriotic for not flying the POW/MIA flag. The crowd was very interactive (which is never the case), to the point of a severe lack of decorum. During the public input times, councilors would get into heated back-and-forths, even though it is the council's stated policy that they cannot respond to the public during a meeting.

There were boos and hisses, applause and cheering all throughout the entire meeting. It was certainly the most raucous council meeting in recent history.

Many people addressed the council, including several out-of-towners, the daughter of a Vietnam MIA, and a self-proclaimed Vietnam POW. The latter appears to have started an entirely different controversy, since national POW groups do not recognize him on their official lists as a Vietnam POW, as he claimed he was. He claimed several medals as well, which if he did not receive, could land him in jail for up to two years as a federal crime of stolen valor. The Muskogee Phoenix has a short article on the issue here (though not all that was printed in the newspaper, for some reason).

Finally, councilman James Gulley suggested placing two flagpoles beside the centennial arch at the Civic Center, and flying the POW/MIA flag on one of those poles. The other flagpole could be utilized for any other flag recognized by Congress (the other five possible flags being the service ensigns).

The council then directed the city attorney to draft a proposal to fit the suggestion, in order to bring it back to the council for a vote on July 27th. The reasoning was that if they ordered the city manager to fly the flag now, they could not deny any other request (and requests were allegedly already coming in) until they had legal language setting the restrictions.

This ended the POW/MIA item on the agenda. After a short recess, the council continued business. About 35 people stayed for the rest of the meeting, still a very significant increase in attendance from usual council meetings.

Click here for part two of the meeting.

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