One by one, officials on the Williamson County Commissioners Court last week gave their reasoning on why a proposal to fly pride and POW/MIA flags at county buildings was something they couldn’t vote in favor of.
Instead of voting on that proposal, the court voted 4 to 0 in favor of a motion brought by County Judge Bill Gravell to create a policy that only the Texas, United States and Williamson County flags could be flown on county buildings, property and facilities.
Commissioner Cynthia Long, Precinct 2, was not present at the session due to a family vacation.
“I know that we don’t need a flag to challenge us to accept, understand and show love and respect for other people,” said Commissioner Terry Cook, Precinct 1.
“But a reminder to show love isn’t all that bad. But I agree that where is it that you say, ‘oh no, can’t do that one.’ I think that’s tricky and as a county I think that we need to stay with our two flags,” Cook said.
The original agenda item was brought on June 12 by Justice of the Peace Stacy Hackenberg, Precinct 4, and Justice of the Peace K.T. Musselman, Precinct 1, according to a press release by the county.
The proposal would have allowed a rainbow Pride and PIO/MIA flag to be flown during June and the week of Veteran's day, respectively. The proposal has brought wide attention from Williamson County residents and those outside the county, both for and against the idea, with 17 or 18 people signing up to comment on the proposal at the court on Sunday.
“It was not my intention to stir up controversy by requesting permission to fly the pride flag in June and the POW/MIA flag the week of Veteran’s Day as a third flag below the Texas flag,” Hackenberg said before questioning by the commissioners on Sunday.
Of the 15 residents who spoke, two were there to speak in favor of the proposal.
“Our people are falling though the cracks, and it’s heartbreaking. None of this was meant to divide but instead to unite. To tell these marginalized communities who are representing in every facet of your lives, whether you see them or not, that here in Williamson County, we see you,” said Zachary Rodriguez, one of two people who signed up to comment in favor of the motion.
“That’s really what this all boils down to. Just visibility, just protection and just care,” Rodriquez said.
The other resident in favor, Jaquita Wilson-Kirby, a Georgetown resident who ran for a city council seat this year, suggested that a double standard was at play.
“If we as county residents can sustain dealing with a Confederate statue on our grounds, and pay to keep it safe, I don’t think a flag representing unity is too much to ask for,” Wilson-Kirby said.
One recurrent argument from Williamson County residents against the proposal was that the U.S. flag was sufficient to represent everyone, including those in the LGBT+ community, and that therefore they were unnecessary.
“That flag up there and the flag of Texas represents all of us, doesn’t matter your religion, your sex, the color of your skin; that flag represents everybody,” said Barry Marchant, a Williamson County resident who spoke at the meeting.
That reasoning largely mirrored that of the commissioners.
“At county buildings I support flying the flag of the United States of America, which we pledge our allegiance to, and to the Texas flag which we honor. To me, that is sufficient for all of us. And after that, where do you stop?” said Commissioner Valerie Covey, Precinct 3.
Covey added that “for this issue, when we talk about flags in a courtroom or outside a building…whether it’s actual or not, it may be inferred that there is a preference given for whatever additional flag might be flown in that area, and justice is supposed to be blind, so I have an issue on that.”
Commissioner Russ Boles, Precinct 2, said that “flying a flag other than the American flag and the Texas flag by definition excludes somebody.”
Other residents argued that the flag was a political symbol and thus should not be flown.
“What’s being asked here is to allow a political symbol to wave from our courthouse,” said James Bernsen, a resident and veteran from Taylor, Texas, who spoke at the court meeting. “Political flags, flags with an agenda, do not belong on our flagpole."
Though Gravell’s reasoning was akin to the other commissioners’, his decision was also partly reinforced by social media polls he conducted days earlier.
On his official Facebook and Twitter pages, Gravell told his followers on June 14 that “two Williamson County elected officials have ask us [sic] to add a third flag on our flag poles on County property. It is the Rainbow Pride flag (commonly known as the gay pride flag or LGBTQ pride flag).”
On Facebook, the poll received around 69,400 responses, with 48 percent voting in favor and 52 percent opposed. The Twitter poll earned considerably less attention, with only 3,426 votes. There, the result was the opposite, with 81 percent in favor to 19 percent against.
In an emailed response to a question about the poll’s influence on his decision, Gravell said “the law had the greatest impact upon my decision. Following the law, what informed my decision next was the public testimony, which was reinforced by the polling data.”
One resident at the session, Cathy Jaster, brought up the polls during her comments.
“Why would a discussion such as this be started on Facebook?” Jaster said. “Is that proper protocol for introducing topics of discussion? And what controls are over this survey to validate the voters and the count and the opportunity for all to vote?” she said.
“The reason why I posted the poll is because I thought it would be an opportunity for feedback from our constituents on a question. I thought it was a good question. What I wasn’t aware of was that over 70,000 people would respond to an online poll which you and I know not to be completely scientific representing Williamson County. But even in that, there was an engagement of conversation that really stood out to me,” he said.
He said that he was able to break down the poll into only Williamson County voters, of which were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal. He added that other local Facebook pages showcased the same sentiment.
Before introducing the alternative motion, Gravell gave his closing thoughts.
“What I’ve learned the most is that America can be a very unkind place,” Gravell said. “I’ve read disparaging comments for everyone. And what happened to civility and kindness and compassion? What happened to the biblical precept, that you and I know, to love your brother, love your neighbor as yourself?” he said.
“And so, judges, I want to say this to you: what I’ve learned through the polling is that our constituents locally are adamantly opposed to this, but what I learned as well too is that people are just mean. And somewhere the meanness has to stop. From our county courthouse to our White House, we should be kind in how we talk to and deal with people.”