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Flag controversy puts Woodbine family in national spotlight

Justice SystemFreedom of the PressHighway and Road TransportationFox Broadcasting CompanyFox News Channel (tv network)

Rhonda Winkler has never been contacted by so many strangers in her life.

Soldiers from all across the country have been emailing her and sending her Facebook messages with notes of appreciation. Mothers have been thanking her for setting a good example for their children. A retired Air Force officer in Oklahoma sent her a three-page letter in the mail, telling her to "keep up the fight."

And in her small, western Howard County community of Woodbine? Forget about it.

"In our community, I can't go anywhere without people saying, 'Keep it up! Good job! We're behind you!'" Winkler said.

All of the attention began just before Christmas, when the American flag that Winkler and her family had maintained for three years on the traffic circle at the intersection of Woodbine Road and Old Frederick Road was removed by a State Highway Administration crew. Winkler decided to hold an event at the circle Dec. 23 that was one part protest, one part patriotic rally.

The flag's removal didn't sit well with her family, nor with the community at large, Winkler said, and they wanted to show it.

"I'm not a big stink-maker; I don't sweat the small stuff and we're at the point (in society) where you can't say this and you can't do that, but the American flag is one thing we are all going to stand up for," Winkler said at the time.

The Howard County Times first reported the event and the community's frustration with the SHA's actions. The story went viral. National news outlets got wind of the story and ran with it.

Winkler appeared on the television program Fox and Friends to talk about the issue, and Fox News ran two segments on the story.

In short, the controversy took on a life of its own, with Winkler at the center of the storm.

"It's been a lot more than I thought it would be," Winkler said of the attention she and her family have received. "But I'm proud of what we are doing and what we're standing up for."

'Controversy Spreads Misinformation'

What the community is standing up for, Winkler said, is the American flag and all it represents.

Unfortunately for the SHA, that patriotic story line has largely cast the administration as a bungling, bureaucratic government agency standing against the flag — which is not true, said Valerie Edgar, director of the administration's office of communications.

From top to bottom, the SHA is made up of regular people who live in the same local communities and are as patriotic as everyone else involved, Edgar said.

"We love the American flag. We have it at all our offices," she said. "We have family members who are veterans. We've had current employees be deployed."

Edgar said misinformation spread by the media distorted what happened at the circle and why it happened.

To combat the perceived confusion, the SHA posted a 10-paragraph response on its Web site's homepage titled, "Flag Controversy Spreads Misinformation."

The gist of that response was that the SHA is eager to work with the Woodbine community to find a solution and that key parts of the spreading story — including that the flag was thrown in the back of a dump truck and that the Winkler family was denied the flag when they asked for it back, as the Times initially reported and other outlets repeated – are not true.

"The flag was lowered and respectfully folded and placed in the cab of an SHA vehicle and stored securely in an SHA facility until it could be claimed by the owner," the statement said.

The SHA "did not deny the owner access to claiming the flag or pole, the flag was not 'thrown' into the back of a truck, and SHA did not refuse to comment on why the flagpole was removed," the statement said.

But verifying what exactly happened is difficult — Fred Winkler, Rhonda Winkler's father-in-law, for example, told the Times he was denied the flag when he went to retrieve it at the SHA's Dayton offices — and the overall debate seems far from over, with more and more voices being added to the mix.

Constitutional arguments

Winkler recently obtained free legal representation from the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil liberties group based in Charlottesville, Va., that Winkler learned of after the group's founder, John Whitehead, appeared on the Fox and Friends program to provide a constitutional analysis of the situation, she said.

On Jan. 10, Whitehead sent a four-page letter to SHA Administrator Melinda Peters — copying Gov.Martin O'Malleyand Beverley Swaim-Staley, the state's transportation secretary — that demands the SHA replace the flag or provide the Winklers a permit to do so, and puts forward constitutional arguments for why the Winklers would have a legal case against the SHA if they wished to pursue one.

In an interview, Whitehead said the fact that the flag had already flown at the circle for three years prior to its removal made the circle a de facto public forum for freedom of expression, a tough place for government to silence free speech, which flying a flag is considered. Whitehead also said that the length of time the flag had been allowed to fly at the circle negates the SHA's argument that it presented safety concerns and that the burden to prove a safety issue now rests with the SHA if it wants to maintain that argument.

"They admitted by their keeping the flag up that it wasn't a safety issue, or they were very negligent for three years," Whitehead said.

Not so fast, Edgar said.

The reason the flag suddenly presented different safety concerns than it had in the past is because, just prior to its being removed, the Winker family had installed a new, 25-foot flag pole that was cemented into the ground.

"We have certain liability issues and safety concerns. It's not the flag so much that is the issue. It's more the 25-foot cemented pole. That's the thing that changed from three years ago to now," Edgar said. "…A large pole getting hit could quite possibly do a lot of harm, so we want to make sure whatever we come up with is good for safety and for what communities would like to do."

That argument will likely be included in the SHA's response to Whitehead's letter, which Whitehead requested be provided by Jan. 20.

Edgar said the SHA had planned to follow-up directly with the Winkler family and the community, but will be happy to work with Whitehead as well.

"What we need to do is work with the community on what we can do that's within the law and that is safe," she said.

Part of keeping within the law is ensuring that any flag that may go up on the circle doesn't get tattered, that it's lighted at night, and that it doesn't present a danger to motorists, as the cemented pole did, Edgar said.

'Bureaucratic blunder'

That the SHA hasn't already acted to quell the uproar is something that has taken many people by surprise.

"Here's the bigger question: Why go through all this? Why not just put a flag up?" Whitehead said. "I've been suing the government for 30 years and I don't know why they want to do this the hard way."

Whitehead said he's hoping his institute's involvement will help get the ball rolling, and will convince the SHA to take the easy road by replacing the flag.

"It's much less expensive than defending a lawsuit against us, because we're going to want documents and they're going to have three or four attorneys working on it, and if we win we're going to get attorney's fees," Whitehead said. "…I think a bureaucratic blunder is what I would call it."

Steve Gray, a senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Forceand a childhood friend of Winkler's who now lives in Harford County, agreed.

"The state of Maryland, they're generally pretty quick to work on things and not let things spiral out of control like that," he said. "It really surprised me that it's gotten this far without an amicable solution."

Edgar said the SHA is looking at whether the policy it developed after Sept. 11, 2001, for people who wanted to fly flags at highway overpasses, could be adapted for traffic circles, but had no timeline for when a solution may come.

"I can't predict what will ultimately be the outcome of this, but I can say we are open to working with the family and the community," she said.

A huge crowd behind her'

However the SHA handles the situation, local residents said they are extremely proud of Winkler's approach.

"She is intelligently and respectfully finding all the right avenues to challenge this," said Nancy Proviano, a Woodbine resident and friend of Winkler's. "I'm proud to say that she's teaching our children how to dispute things."

"She's got a huge crowd behind her, pushing her to keep going," said Ronnie Hartner, another friend who lives just up the road from the traffic circle.

"A lot of people, if put in Rhonda' spot, would have lost traction with it and let something like this go," Gray said. "I can't say, as a military member and a childhood friend, how much I appreciate what she's doing, and that she's continuing to see this all the way through to get (a flag) back out there."

As simple as a waving American flag in a traffic circle may seem, it means a lot, said Gray, who's been deployed many times overseas.

"When you come home, especially to your home town, you get to see the people you've grown up with and the people you've known your entire life, and that's the way they say, 'Hey, we support you,'" Gray said. "That's the one thing that still kind of chokes everyone up, when you see that."

For her part, Winkler said she has no plans of letting up.

"Without our flag, our armed forces, the military, there is no America," she said. "It's who we are. It's what we are. It's the symbol of our country."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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