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Controversy erupts in Arroyo Grande, again, over City Hall Pride flag 

Arroyo Grande residents flocked to the April 23 City Council meeting both to support and oppose flying a Pride flag at City Hall and Heritage Square Park for the month of June.

During the meeting, council supported staff recommendations to fly certain specified flags on an annually recurring basis. Those flags included the Military Service commemorative flag in the month of May, the Pride commemorative flag in the month of June, and the commemorative flag for Juneteenth.

click to enlarge PUBLIC COMMENT During an April 23 Arroyo Grande City Council meeting, dozens of residents waited in line to give council members their opinions on why the Pride flag should or shouldn't be flown at City Hall and Heritage Square Park for the month of June. - PHOTO BY SAMANTHA HERRERA
  • Photo By Samantha Herrera
  • PUBLIC COMMENT During an April 23 Arroyo Grande City Council meeting, dozens of residents waited in line to give council members their opinions on why the Pride flag should or shouldn't be flown at City Hall and Heritage Square Park for the month of June.

Councilmember Kristen Barneich spoke in support of flying the Pride flag as a way to help prevent suicide.

"I know people, I know young adults that have taken their lives that have lived in Arroyo Grande because they were afraid they wouldn't be accepted," she said during the meeting. "I think that if you're not the minority and you are the majority in your sexuality, you can't understand what this flag means. You drive by it and you say, 'Oh yeah this is the Pride flag,' but for someone who is questioning if they should come out, when they should come out, and if they'll be accepted, to see the leaders of their community put a flag up that represents them, that could literally prevent a suicide."

Many who attended the meeting supported Barniech's sentiment and even shared personal accounts about their own experiences being part of the LGBTQ-plus community or having friends or family members who are part of it.

During public comment, Cuesta College student and Arroyo Grande resident Ashley said that as a transgender person, she sometimes feels scared walking around the community and up Grand Avenue.

"I feel afraid for my life sometimes because it's true that those people who see us as evil could and may be incentivized to do something," she said. "I don't want that; I know nobody here wants violence, and if I were to get stabbed to death, if I were to die, that flag being raised would remind me that this council here and the county as a whole wouldn't let my death go unnoticed, and that's hopeful."

Ashley's comments struck Councilmember Lan George, who made it apparent why she's in favor of continuing to fly the Pride flag during June.

"What makes me sad and the reason I will be supporting tonight's staff recommendation to fly all three flags ... is what someone said tonight," she said. "We will continue to fly this flag until our residents don't have to say that anymore. If that's not enough of a reason, then I don't know what is."

This will be the fourth year in a row that Arroyo Grande will fly the Pride flag at City Hall. A May 2021 policy adoption allows the city to fly certain flags on an annually recurring basis, as requested by City Council members. While the first two years the city adopted a resolution to fly the Pride flag during Pride Month were uneventful, last year's meeting where the City Council adopted a similar resolution brought opposition. Residents wrote public comment letters and spoke out in favor and against flying the flag, following a trend that erupted across the Central Coast and country over LGBTQ-plus issues, according to previous New Times reporting.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Guthrie said he was prepared to vote against flying the Pride flag, but public comment on both sides changed his mind.

"I'm also going to support this tonight, but I have a somewhat different perspective than the rest of council has here. I see taking this step to put up this flag isn't like a policy statement, it is an exceptional thing that says, 'We have a problem that we need to solve,' and four years ago I think that was clear, and someday it's not going to be clear," he said.

According to the staff report, federal law doesn't allow flags of a particular religious movement or creed to be flown to avoid the appearance of city government endorsing religion or a particular religious movement. The same goes for political parties and flags advocating certain election outcomes.

One resident, Gaea Powell, said that's exactly what City Council members are doing by flying the Pride flag and they're also engaging in an unethical deceptive tactic that manipulates the U.S. Supreme Court's doctrine and should consider resigning.

"The issue tonight is that certain flags shouldn't hang on public property or city property. I really appreciate everyone sharing their personal stories and views this evening, but I hope all in this room have a clear understanding of the intent of the City Council and the city staff's presented flag resolution," Powell said. "Our leaders are attempting to manipulate a government speech doctrine ... defined by the U.S. Supreme Court that allows a government organization to advance their own expression so long as it does not show preference to a creed, religion, or represents a political view driven by personal beliefs or basis."

Mayor Caren Ray Russom said the conversation that night showed how much the community needed to work to reach unity.

"The American flag is the ideal; it does represent unity, it represents what America stands for, but the Pride flag flying not above it but below it reminds us that there is still work to be done," she said. "We're not finished, and we never will be." Δ


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