Who decides which ‘special flags’ should fly over County-City Building? A debate rages

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Pierce County’s executive and County Council are feuding over who gets to decide which flags fly over the County-City Building, and the courts might have to get involved.

Republican Executive Bruce Dammeier and the Democratic majority of the County Council have been at odds over flag policy following last summer’s Pride month, which celebrates the LGBTQ community. The debate has highlighted the tension between the executive and legislative branches over who can create county policy.

On Monday, Dammeier vetoed a flag policy approved by a majority of the council. He said he has the ultimate say in which flags can fly and that he can require unanimous support from the council to hoist a flag above the headquarters of county government.

He told The News Tribune on Tuesday that symbols like flags can be divisive. He cited the “thin blue line” flag, which some contend supports law enforcement while others say it supports white supremacists, who wave the American flag with a blue line at rallies.

“I am responsible for delivering a policy that is unified and fair to everybody. So how we treat one flag is how we treat all of the other flags,” Dammeier said.

Democratic County Council Chair Derek Young believes that the debate over flag policy is about more than symbolism.

“The action of the executive oversteps his authority,” Young said in a Tuesday study session where the policy was discussed.

The bill vetoed by Dammeier would require a simple majority of the County Council to determine which “special flags” can fly alongside the flags of the United States, Prisoner of War/Missing in Action and Pierce County atop the County-City Building. It passed council on April 19 along party lines, 4-3, with the Democratic majority prevailing.

Dammeier told the council in his veto letter that the county already has a flag-display policy. The attached policy gives the county executive ultimate authority to hang a special flag after a unanimous council request and barring objections from presiding county judges. Dammeier told The News Tribune the policy was created last summer.

“By requiring broad support for flags to be flown over county facilities, this policy helps avoid the costly and unnecessary fights we have seen in other jurisdictions regarding these symbolic displays,” Dammeier’s letter said.

Young of Gig Harbor said council staff was unaware of that policy, and that countywide policy should be decided by the council.

“We didn’t find out about this policy he had developed until the veto,” Young told The News Tribune. “It’s a policy that certainly wasn’t adopted by the council.”

PRIDE FLAG AND PROCLAMATION

Dammeier said a policy letter was shared with the council last summer during the Pride flag discussions.

Last July, the county’s first-ever Pride month proclamation was contentious. Proclamations are declarations of support that usually garner signatures from both branches and don’t require executive approval.

Young asked that the county fly the Pride flag to coincide with the proclamation, but pulled that request after push back from Dammeier’s office, council spokesperson Brynn Grimley said.

Dammeier told The News Tribune his objection to the flag request had nothing to do with the LGBTQ community.

“The county flagpole is not a, it’s not a forum for freedom of expression. It’s supposed to identify the location of government law offices, and that’s what it does,” he said. “If the council felt there was a flag that they felt was appropriate to fly, then we needed to have an appropriate policy and it needed to be a unifying policy. It needed to be one that brings people together.”

The Pride month proclamation passed the council in a 4-1 vote. The four Democrats — Young, Tacoma’s Marty Campbell and Ryan Mello and Lakewood’s Jani Hitchen — voted yes, while Republican Amy Cruver voted no and Republican council members Dave Morell and Hans Zeiger abstained, saying that they did not want to take sides as they represent constituents who both support and oppose Pride month.

Dammeier’s name was not included on the Pride month proclamation, nor was he given the proclamation to sign because earlier in the year he told Council he would only consider signing proclamations that receive a unanimous vote, his office’s communications director Libby Catalinich told The News Tribune on Monday.

UNANIMOUS VOTE FOR FLAGS EXPECTED

Young said requiring a unanimous vote to fly a flag is neither policy nor within Dammeier’s authority. The county charter determines what legislation requires a supermajority, five of seven votes, like tax increases.

“The council is a body. When we have a majority, that’s the one voice,” Young said. “The majority rules unless otherwise stated. There is not a unanimous standard for anything. That’s not something [Dammeier] can change.”

Dammeier said it is in his rights to reject any council bill, just as they have the power to override his veto.

“I am part of that legislative process,” he told the newspaper on Tuesday. “The council has the right if they want to make that policy to make it, and in my role, I chose to veto it.”

The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said attorneys represent both branches and cannot weigh in on the flag policy making, spokesperson Adam Faber said.

Republican council members backed Dammeier’s call for unanimity in the April 19 council meeting. Zeiger and Cruver said they only support flying flags on county property with a unanimous vote.

“We want to fly flags that are unifying,” Zeiger said in the council meeting, pointing to the example of a veterans flag as a unifying flag.

Council member Mello (D-Tacoma) sponsored the bill and disagreed.

“There is nothing controversial about this. We made decisions with the simple majority all the time,” he said.

Young also has considered flying flags to support Ukraine during Russia’s invasion and to support local Native American tribes.

Young told the newspaper he likely would bring forth a veto override vote in the May 3 council meeting. A veto override requires five votes, meaning the Democrat’s four-seat majority would need at least one Republican vote. Morell said in the Tuesday study session he would consider a policy for unanimous support on flags, and Cruver told The News Tribune the same. Zeiger was interested in learning more from county attorneys.

“We may need to file a motion in the courts to get an interpretation from the courts. We may need to ask for that. It’s significant enough,” Young said. “What other policies can he write without consulting the council? Or say that something requires a unanimous vote of the council?”

Dammeier welcomes court intervention if the council decides to take that action.

“I’m confident we are on very strong policy and legal standing, [Young] just doesn’t like the outcome,” the county executive said.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.