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City Pulls Down Yellow Ribbons
Portland Press Herald   |  August 08, 2007
Yellow ribbons have been everywhere in South Portland for four months, wrapped around trees and stapled to utility poles. They are tributes to U.S. troops, especially two soldiers from this city who died in Iraq in March.

Starting Monday, the ribbons are coming down.

City officials have struck an informal compromise with the family of Army Sgt. Jason Swiger, who was killed in action March 25. The sides will work together to create a permanent memorial to honor all the city's veterans, said Acting City Manager James Gailey.

"Finally, we are coming to the table to work together," Gailey said Friday.

It remains to be seen, however, how the general public will react to the plans. Few issues in South Portland have prompted such strong emotions as the yellow ribbon debate, which first divided the city in 2003.

Valorie Swiger, Jason's mother, has been at the center of the controversy. Along with relatives and supporters across South Portland, Swiger has pressed the city to change an ordinance that bans ribbons, posters and other items from public property. Others have argued the ribbons can be interpreted as support for the war and the Bush administration, and they have asked city officials to enforce the ordinance.

The debate resurfaced in late March after two South Portland High School graduates - Sgt. Swiger and Marine Lance Cpl. Angel Rosa - were killed within a span of two weeks. As part of the community response, city councilors voted unanimously to allow the ribbons to be posted anywhere in the city for a month. Little was said in opposition to that decision.

But the deadline of April 27 came and went, and the ribbons remained. Three months passed. When some ribbons fell or became too weathered, new ones appeared in their places.

Some residents began to ask why the city was ignoring the violations. Gailey explained that he was trying to be sensitive to grieving families. Also not lost on Gailey was the media firestorm of 2003, during which some people nationwide labeled South Portland officials as anti-American. Still, Gailey realized the ribbons would have to come down eventually.

In early July, he asked Swiger to begin the process of removing the ribbons.

"She said no," Gailey said.

Around that time, Gailey began circulating his vision of a permanent memorial - a focal point for tributes. There are small, scattered memorials throughout the city, but nothing for all wars, Gailey said.

He e-mailed Swiger on Tuesday and asked again if the family would remove the ribbons. This time, he said city workers were prepared to start the work.

On Thursday, Swiger showed up at Gailey's office. Within a few hours, an informal meeting was convened, attended by Gailey, Swiger, Mayor Claude Morgan and residents Dan Fortin and Paul Nixon, supporters of Swiger.

"We talked it out," Gailey said. "We heard loud and clear her side, her desires and wishes, and we also told her our side of things," Gailey said.

He agreed to work with Swiger to form a committee of residents to explore the concept of a permanent memorial. Gailey also agreed to place boxes at municipal buildings where residents can drop off gifts to be sent to troops overseas.

Swiger will collect the donations, assemble gift packages and distribute them. Gailey intends to communicate those plans publicly at the council meeting Monday night.

Swiger reluctantly agreed not to protest the removal of the ribbons or to put up any new ones, Gailey said. Sarah Neuts of the city's parks department said workers will add the job of taking down ribbons to their regular maintenance routines, beginning Monday.

Swiger could not be reached for comment.

Calvin Muse, one of a handful of residents who recently urged councilors to remove the ribbons, acknowledged he has been critical of the Bush administration, but said his argument about the ordinance is based firmly on the rule of law.

"There are better ways to get your beliefs out than to break laws and force your personal agendas on a town," Muse said.

He said he needs more time to hear about Gailey's plan and form opinions. In general, though, Muse said it could set a dangerous precedent for the city to negotiate with private parties who disobey ordinances.

He was concerned that Thursday's meeting was not held in public.

"This is definitely a touchy issue, as we all know, because of the loss of two young people," Muse said. "I hope that public input is actively pursued by the City Council. If there has been some kind of compromise, bring it into the public domain."

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