The Decorah City Council has again denied Winneshiek County Republicans’ request to fly President Donald Trump flags along Water Street.
Council member Randy Schissel cast the only vote in favor of the flag request.

Trump birthday
During its June 3 Council meeting, Council members rejected the county Republicans’ special event application to fly flags in conjunction with President Trump’s birthday party on a 4-3 vote.
They had planned the party for Trump’s birthday, June 14, which also is Flag Day. Several Council members said at the June 3 meeting they objected to the flags because they included Trump’s 2020 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Winneshiek County Republican Chair Tom Hansen then asked to postpone the celebration to Thursday, July 4, from noon to 1 p.m. at Water Street Park, next to the Oneota Community Food Co-op. He had the flags modified, removing the campaign slogan, and resubmitted his special event application that included the request to fly Trump flags.
When asked if the birthday celebration will still be held July 4, Hansen said “most definitely.”
“We’re encouraging everyone that has a President Trump flag to come to the park and bring it,” he said. Hansen said cake and punch will be served at the event.

Brief
Before Monday’s Council meeting, members received a brief from City Attorney John Anderson and City Manager Chad Bird on the city’s flag policy.
The city has allowed the flying of U.S., Norwegian, Luther College and Decorah Community School flags from city owned light poles on Water Street. In April, the Council approved a flag policy that allows special interest flags to be flown belonging to organizations that “serve residents of Decorah and Winneshiek County, provide a broad community interest, appeal to wide cross section of residents and reflect the values of the community.”
The policy is in a one-year trial period, according to the city officials. In May, the Council approved a request to allow Pride flags to be flown in conjunction with the city’s Pride festival.

Revise policy
In their brief, Anderson and Bird recommended that “in order to provide a neutral consistent standard for what flags the city will consider displaying, it is advisable to revise the flag policy to either prohibit the display of flags for a political purpose (as defined by city policy) or limit flags displayed on city light poles to a designated set of flags on specific days. Without a revised policy, the city runs the risk of numerous future requests that require significant attention by city staff and the Council that will likely result in considerable public debate about what is and is not acceptable and without clear resolutions or consensus.”
Anderson and Bird said based on U.S. Supreme Court cases and the Hatch Act, which governs the political activity of certain state and local government employees, the city has both the right to choose the message it wants to convey on city owned property with exceptions for traditional public forums such as public parks, but also the duty to equally apply neutral policies with regard to political parties, ballot initiatives and candidates.
Because what is “political” in regards to flags can be “endlessly debated,” Anderson and Bird said the city can provide its own definition of political in the context of the flag policy. Even with an established definition of “political purposes” there may be unforeseen applications to display flags that will not clearly either meet or not meet the policy definition of political purpose, the officials brief said.
“How often to you want to be dealing with those requests and determining if it appeals to a wide group? They are difficult questions that you're probably not going to get a whole lot of consensus on,” Anderson told the Council.
The other alternative would be for the Council to revise its flag policy to only permit the flying of specific, designated flags such as the United State flag, the Luther College flag the Decorah School District flag and flags from Nordic countries, which can be justified by the city’s annual celebration of Nordic Fest for the past 50 years, Anderson and Bird stated.

Discussion
Council member Johanna Bergan, who previously voted in favor of the Republicans’ flag request said she would support “firming up” what flags can’t be flown from city flag poles.
Council member Ross Hadley said he would prefer to terminate the city’s “experimental flag policy” and return to the practice of allowing U.S., Luther College, Decorah School District and Nordic flags to be flown.
Council member Kirk Johnson said the existing flag policy could be “tweaked” to “make it work.”

Prove diversity
For the past 40 years, Hansen said he has stood up and fought for what it just.
“This is an issue of free speech,” he said.
He said if the Council is going to help one group disseminate its message to the public, every group should be allowed the same opportunity.
“As far as diversity in the community, what could be more diverse than having a gay pride celebration and this celebration?” Hansen asked.
He said at their last meeting, several Council members said they’d approve the flags if Trump’s campaign slogan were removed.
Council member Andy Carlson agreed he’d made that statement, but in the meantime, had received the opinion of the city’s legal counsel and heard from constituents about the issue which changed his view.
“I’m not anxious to have Neo Nazi groups applying for flags as well,” Johnson said.
“You can’t change a policy now, because you don’t like my partisanship,” Hansen said.
“The only thing you’re doing under the current policy is determining does this flag application appeal to a wide cross-section of residents?” Anderson told the Council.
After the Council voted down the flag request, Bergan said the Council community betterment committee she chairs would be taking up the issue of the city’s flag policy.