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It's time to heal flag rift, move on

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

The flags will be up on Sept. 11. Simple, direct, unambiguous.

So said two Inverness officials, key players in the long-running saga that has become known as the flag project, in separate chats Thursday afternoon.

No matter what obstacles stand in the way, the officials vowed, they will be overcome by city staff, which has made this a top priority for the remaining days leading to the historic anniversary.

As bottom lines go, that's pretty clear.

And long overdue.

The bold declarations from City Manager Frank DiGiovanni and City Council member Jacquie Hepfer should be welcome salves on the emotional wounds that have festered among many in the Inverness area over the past few months.

But the anger that boiled over at Tuesday night's council meeting may be beyond any attempts at damage control now. There may be nothing, not even a promise that the project will be complete, that will heal the rift.

Both sides have taken pains in the days following that session to explain their actions, to give insight into what has gone on behind the scenes. Both sides make compelling cases for why they have been misunderstood and treated unfairly.

I wonder: Why are there sides at all? And why couldn't those iron-clad promises about the project have been made in May or June, rather than at the last minute?

The chronology of the well-meaning project indicates that both the city and the citizens' group led by Mary-Ann and Arnold Virgilio at one point long ago were reading from the same book, if not precisely from the same page.

Both visions involved hanging something from the utility poles that line Main Street: the city was looking at banners, the Virgilios favored American flags. It seems that a little conversation and cooperation would have bridged that gap.

But it never got to that point. Weeks, then months passed. Frustration built in both camps over the lack of information from the other side as Sept. 11 drew closer.

What should have been a relatively easy project has blown up into a community crisis.

Without placing blame, which would solve nothing, two points remain clear.

First, the flags should fly. There may be some in the community who feel this entire idea is overkill, that homes and businesses should display flags depending on their owners' feelings. But so many people in and around Inverness have said, in the strongest terms, that this is what they want and that those in position to make it happen should do so.

Second, the city leaders and the community committee members must turn down the heat, set their egos and hurt feelings aside, and talk this over as rational adults. They have to learn from this experience.

Why? Because they will be working with each other in the future on some other community-enhancement project. They've done so for years and I see no reason to stop. Inverness has the kind of small-town, all-American feel in large part because of these events, which draw visitors from all over the county (yes, folks who live outside the city limits contribute to the success of these events. Take away their efforts, and money, and see how many of these activities wither and blow away).

Obviously, things could have been handled better. It seems too pat to say that communication could have been better, but it's true.

It's also true to say that the people involved should have anticipated a lot of these potholes. All of them are good, well-meaning people but none of them are novices when it comes to organizing events. Why this one blew up like this is anyone's guess.

There is a third point as well.

On Sept. 11, when you look down Main Street and see the flags, think about what they really mean.

They are vivid reminders that the American way of doing things can sometimes be messy and infuriating, but that we usually get to the right place. And that, on that terrible day last September, people who hate us tried to destroy that way of life -- and failed.

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