CHRISTIANSBURG — The town bought a new municipal flag as part of a wish to be able to lower it — instead of the American flag — to half-staff without needing approval from either the governor or president.
The flag’s purchase, which town records show cost $224, comes months after a back-and-forth about the issue following the March 19 death of former longtime Christiansburg Fire Department Chief James Epperly.
The town, at the direction of Mayor Mike Barber, lowered its American flags to half-mast upon learning of Epperly’s death, but other officials with the municipality immediately raised questions about Christiansburg’s authority to lower flags on its own, according to a string of emails obtained by the Roanoke Times.
The flags were lowered for less than a day, according to town spokeswoman Melissa Demmitt.
Councilman Sam Bishop wrote in one of the emails that he had seen the initial flag-lowering request from current fire Chief Billy Hanks. Bishop expressed his understanding of the request, but wrote that he didn’t think the town could lower flags without an order from the president or governor.
Councilman Brad Stipes, in another email, echoed Bishop’s comment.
Barber responded with: “We have done this a few times in the past (Roy Redd and Harold Linkous) … officers killed in the line of duty. We are requesting the flags on our town owned property and no other in honor of Jimmy(’s) service and dedication.”
Town Manager Randy Wingfield immediately contacted Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, which confirmed two days after Epperly’s death that Christiansburg couldn’t lower the flags.
Additionally, Barber at the time sought consultation on the flag issue with the town’s contracted law firm Guynn, Waddell, Carroll & Lockaby, which gave the mayor the same answer as Northam’s office.
Attorney Mark Popovich spent an hour and a half researching the issue and meeting with Barber, according to town records. The town pays the firm an hourly rate of $165.
While awaiting a response from Northam’s office, Wingfield provided all of town council with a copy of the text on flag lowering.
“Only the Governor has the authority to order Virginia flags on public buildings be flown at half-staff,” according to the text. “The President of the United States or the Governor of Virginia can authorize the United States flag be flown at half-staff on public buildings. The orders will indicate how long the flag(s) should remain at half-staff.”
After receiving the answer from Northam’s office, Wingfield told council in a March 21 email that a firefighter must have died in service for the Virginia or United States flags to be lowered.
Wingfield provided council with links to further cases where the governor granted exceptions for flags to be lowered. One case — pursuant to a proclamation from President Donald Trump — was for the victims of the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Another order on Feb. 12 was for the death of former Prince William County Supervisor John D. Jenkins. And another order issued on Jan. 30, 2018, was for the death of civil rights leader Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker.
Walker, who was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategist, died on Jan. 23, 2018. Northam’s order in honor of Walker called for flags to be lowered at sunrise on Feb. 14, 2018, and remain at half-staff until sunset on Feb. 17, 2018.
“You will see exceptions for local politicians when they are in large places, but a 20-year small town mayor with 20 prior years on council does not get the same consideration as a large area local politician” Wingfield wrote, “and a 45-year firefighter does not get the same consideration as a civil rights leader.
“The governors make exceptions when they feel like it and they all seem to operate under the ignore the request model so that they do not have to tell you no — I had to contact them three times to get told no.”
Wingfield at the time suggested that a town flag might be the best solution to getting around the flag-lowering barriers, but he warned that custom flags can be expensive and “do wear out in the wind and weather.”
Barber said he sought an answer from the town attorney due to the time it was taking Northam’s office to respond.
“They didn’t respond for at least two days. We already had it down and up,” he said. “There’s no insinuation I’m more powerful than the president or governor.”
Barber’s consultation on the flag matter occurred months before the establishment of a new policy that aims to keep council members from speaking with its contracted law firm about town business on a whim — and possibly triggering a legal consultation bill.
The policy requires that any questions for the town attorney first go through either Wingfield or Assistant Town Manager Andrew Warren. That requirement, some council members have said, allows certain inquiries to be addressed without necessarily requiring a legal consultation.
Barber said he has since become better educated on the flag issue.
He said the town got the request shortly after Epperly’s death to lower flags for a young serviceman from Christiansburg.
“I had to respectfully decline that,” Barber said, adding that the serviceman had not died in the line of duty.
Barber, however, said there was good reason to honor Epperly.
“For what he meant to the town and to the first responders. He was a highly decorated, highly commended member of that profession,” Barber said. “I look at what Jimmy did for the town, citizens … he meant a whole lot. He brought firefighters from all over.”
Epperly served the town’s department for 54 years, 38 of which were spent as chief, according to an obituary. He retired in 2009.
Barber said the town hasn’t yet officially determined how it will use the new flag.
“We’re still in the process of researching a flag policy,” he said. “But the hope is for when a longtime employee, retiree, first responder, someone like that dies — not in the line of duty, but in service to the town.”
Other council members support the purchase of a new town flag.
“I think it’s a great idea. There are times when we as a community want to recognize the loss of a significant personality of our community,” Stipes said. “Since our options are limited with the state and national flag, I think it’s perfectly appropriate for us to have a flag to have more options.”