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Good idea that won't fly over Inverness

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By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002


Who knew that it would be so difficult to be a patriot in Inverness?

A local couple, Mary-Ann and Arnold Virgilio, are finding out the hard way.

While the rest of us are becoming more aware with each passing day that the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America is coming, the Virgilios have been thinking ahead. Since the beginning of the year, they've been planning ways for Inverness to commemorate this historic day.

In some places, government officials would be thrilled that citizens have volunteered to take on such an important task. Recognizing the amount of work involved, they might even offer the government's resources to smooth over any rough spots the volunteers encounter.

In Inverness, however, city officials have been busy throwing a wet blanket on the effort.

Where's the spirit of cooperation? Where's the interest in trying to find a way to make a good thing happen?

The Virgilios want to line Main Street through town with American flags on the days leading up to Sept. 11. It's a very public way to show everyone who travels that busy road that Inverness honors those who died in both the attacks and in the subsequent warfare.

OK, so it's not a new idea. For nearly a year, Crystal River has been displaying flags along U.S. 19 for the very same reasons. Call Inverness a copycat if you like, but it's still a worthy project.

The city is raising the ever-popular liability issue, the all-purpose excuse to use when faced with something you don't want to do. If anything goes wrong, we can be sued. At a time when fat guys can sue fast-food restaurants for selling them burgers and fries, who can argue with that logic?

Of course, anyone can sue for any reason. That's why governments have insurance, contingency funds and their own attorneys. Prudent governments don't go looking for problems, but if lawsuits arise, they are in a position to handle them.

City Manager Frank DiGiovanni also said his staff has been busy with other issues, from preparing the budget to working on the downtown renovation project, and has slotted the flag idea in with other matters. That explanation falls flat for a few reasons.

First, the committee that the Virgilios formed has done all of the heavy lifting, from raising more than $3,000 in donations to arranging with a welding teacher to make the flag holders. That has left very little for the staff to do.

As for the city's other pressing matters, let's be serious. The staff has been dealing with the budget for months -- how much work is there really left to do on a document that is not changing dramatically from the current spending plan? And the oft-delayed redevelopment plan? The start of that project obviously is not very time-sensitive; the Sept. 11 anniversary is.

If the city is pressed for time, it has only itself to blame. The Virgilios have been talking to city officials about this for months. Why have they dragged their heels?

Some have suggested that the real reason why the city has been reluctant to get behind the flag idea is that the Virgilios are not residents of Inverness. There is some resentment that folks from out of town are telling Inverness what to do and are causing problems.

If that is true, I wonder why no one at City Hall ever complained all these years when the Virgilios were performing numerous other public service projects? The couple has been instrumental in getting the Inverness branch of the Boys and Girls Club and the Family Visitation Center off the ground. They've organized a host of mentoring programs at Inverness Middle School and countless community fundraisers and events from the Celebrity Car Wash to the recent Flag Day celebration, Uncle Sam Jam and the Patriotic Evening.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll acknowledge that I have known this couple for years (I met them while working at many of these events). It should also be noted that their efforts, while costing them time, energy and money, are not leading to any financial gain. The only ones who profit from their actions are the residents of Citrus County.

Inverness officials can argue about possible problems with the flag plan, but they would be missing the point.

Citizens have taken the initiative on something that will enhance the city and they have run into a brick wall. City leaders could have said early on that, because of liability, the flag idea might not fly, but let's brainstorm some other options. A member of the City Council could have volunteered to help the citizens and fan their enthusiasm with encouragement.

Instead, we have excuses and a conflict that serves no one.

On Sept. 11, communities all across this land will pause to recall that horrible day when terrorists tried to destroy our way of life. Americans will seek ways to stand together and show the world that we are united and strong. Just as in the days following the attacks, flags will be flying everywhere. Except along Main Street in Inverness.

A number of people are expected to show up at the City Council meeting (5:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall) to give their opinions to city leaders, but it may be too late. There's still a lot to do and, because of the city's delays, very little time to do it.

That doesn't mean that Inverness won't acknowledge the day. A ceremony will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 11 on Courthouse Square in downtown Inverness. It will be called Celebrate America's Freedoms: A Day of Remembrance.

Would it surprise you to learn that Mary-Ann Virgilio is one of the organizers?

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