By Robin Jovanovich and Tom McDermott
At the City Council’s April 21 meeting, the Council came dangerously close to making a decision that would have sent a painful and reverberating message to the community. While stating and reiterating their support of inclusivity and all those who identify as LGBTQ, that, before they could confirm a flag would be raised outside City Hall on Pride Day, they needed first to engage a First Amendment attorney.
Councilmember Sara Goddard questioned the need. “Not only is there precedent in the County and nationwide, but it is consistent with our values.” She added, “We are a legislative body, and it is within our rights to raise a flag.”
Mayor Josh Cohn defended the decision to hire outside counsel before agreeing to raise the Pride flag on the grounds that it opened the City up to battles and lawsuits over flags with unwanted messages. “We need to know the law of the 2nd Circuit and have to anticipate what happens after we put up the first flag,” he said.
Before the rest of the Council had a chance to weigh in, Councilmember Julie Souza made a motion, seconded by Deputy Mayor Richard Mecca, to hire a firm which specializes in First Amendment law. It didn’t stop the discussion, but it gave everyone listening pause.
Councilwoman Pam Tarlow protested: “You are going to push this through without Council comment?” She continued, “I have dealt with First Amendment issues for a long time. We need to develop a policy.” Her recommendation was that they give the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) at Rye High School permission to raise the flag that night and move public policy to a future meeting.
While the Council voted 6-1 (Goddard was the “no” vote) to hire the law firm, they were stopped in their tracks by the comments of a number of Rye High teens and parents who asked for a “simple show of acceptance.” Eason Kamander said, “I’d like to talk about the precedent of not putting this flag up!”
Facing a lengthy agenda, which included consideration of a new law to implement a six-month moratorium on residential development involving subdivisions and steep slopes, the Mayor asked those wanting to comment further on the Pride flag to wait and promised to return to the matter after the Council held the public hearing on the moratorium.
In an ideal world, a municipality shouldn’t have to implement a moratorium to decide what kind of community it is going to be. Is it going to be one that preserves its character and protects its neighborhoods from overdevelopment? Is it one that values trees and is resolved to ensure that no applicant can remove nearly every tree from a property before he or she applies to the City for a building permit? Is it one that starts making thoughtful, incremental changes to its Zoning regulations before its beauty and charm are totally eradicated?
Thorne Place resident Carlos Peraza, who lives behind the 95-97 Oakland Beach subdivision, urged the Council to step back and reflect on the disruptive impact of projects like this on community. “What would the town look like if 95 percent of its trees were torn down? Imagine a house that towers over yours and robs you of privacy.”
Public comment was thoughtful and wide-ranging, but in the end, the Council voted not to adopt a retroactive moratorium, which would prevent that subdivision and one other from moving forward. The Council will resume discussion on a moratorium at their next meeting, May 5.
The Council then returned to discussion of flags. After hearing more derision of their handling of the GSA’s request for a Pride flag, they voted 6-0 (Councilman Mecca left earlier) to “commit to raising a flag at City Hall in June, subject to receiving supportive legal advice.”
That half-measure further disappointed and upset supporters of an inclusive community.