After more than a year of internal debate about the cross symbol on the veteran’s memorial at Leif Hansen Memorial Park, the Kenai City Council voted in support of the memorial staying on city property, despite the threat of a lawsuit.
Members of the public packed the council chambers after the issue again appeared on the council’s Wednesday agenda. Council member Terry Bookey introduced the item and requested to go into executive session to hear from Kenai City Attorney Scott Bloom about possible legal action.
After a brief executive session, council member Tim Navarre moved that the council take a stand and show support for the veterans request and asked for support from the state to work with the city against a potential lawsuit. Council member Brian Gabriel seconded the motion.
The Kenai City Council voted 4-2 in favor of Navarre’s motion. Some members of the public clapped after the vote.
“This is the first case in the state of Alaska dealing with an outside entity wanting to challenge a community veteran’s memorial,” Navarre said. “If we get sued we will fight this thing. We already have firms willing to take pro-bono and not charge the city a dime.”
In April, the city received a letter from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State that asked the city to remove the Latin cross from the veteran’s memorial. The group requested a response within 30 days. Bloom responded with a neutral position; he said no lawsuit has been filed with the city at this time.
Council members Ryan Marquis and Bookey voted against Navarre’s motion.
The motion was similar to a resolution Navarre sponsored at an April 2 council meeting. At the time, the council voted to table it indefinitely.
During that meeting, council members Mike Boyle, Bob Molloy, Bookey and Marquis and voted to suspend the resolution. On Wednesday, Molloy voted in support of Navarre’s motion, while Boyle was absent from the meeting.
Bookey said he didn’t want to see the city get sued.
The city also received a letter from the American Center for Law and Justice, an organization that defends constitutional liberties. ACLJ urged the city to continue to display the veteran’s memorial and sided with the artist of the memorial, Scott Hamann, who said he has had discussions with the organization. He said they have offered to help defend the city against a lawsuit.
“The city would have limited liability,” Hamann said. “I think the public would get behind in support. Financially between the state and veterans group, there would be little liability to the city.”
Hamann, who attended the council meeting, said his intent with the memorial was to honor fallen veteran’s with the symbol of a kneeling soldier in front of a soldier’s tomb, marked by a cross. He said he appreciated the sentiment behind Navarre’s action.
“I think a majority of people who have spoken on this issue think (the memorial) is appropriate and should be there,” he said. “Now that the council has taken a stand I say we support it and let the chips fall where they may.”
Navarre said the only liability the city would have is if they lost the suit and would be liable to pay for the other party’s legal fees but said that could be negotiated.
“I think the public’s voice is clearer than any type of litigation,” he said.
Before the vote, the council held a lengthy discussion in public. Marquis said he wanted to limit how much they discuss in executive session because the public is so involved.
Seven people spoke in favor of the veteran’s memorial to remain on city land. Kenai resident and Vietnam veteran Bob Myles asked why the topic was not introduced as a resolution and why the city continued to show support for the Russian Orthodox Church cross that is adorned on the city logo.
Soldotna resident and U.S. Army veteran Tom Bearup also spoke in favor of the memorial. He said he is also a pastor and has married a few people at the park.
“This country is founded on freedom of religion,” Bearup said.
Kenai Mayor Pat Porter said on the public had testified before the council their desire to see the war memorial remain in place and show support for veterans.
“I put myself in a position that I represent the people in the community,” she said. “I have not had anyone come and tell me they wanted to have the memorial removed. We don’t have a lawsuit against us and I’m hoping that continues. The point is we have done the right thing to support it and I hope it stays there.”
Navarre said the city should take a stand and show support for the veteran’s who have made their point. He said he has talked with local state legislators who supported the veteran’s position.
Representative Olson wrote a letter to Kenai City Manager Rick Koch in support of the memorial after veterans and concerned citizens had contacted him regarding the uncertain future of the memorial.
Olson stated in his letter his office was in the process of contacting the Department of Law and Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to see if the state had an issue with the memorial being removed.
Marquis said he felt this was a city issue and didn’t want to see the council lose authority to the state. While he said he appreciated Navarre’s intent, he said it felt like “grandstanding” to the public and wouldn’t change anything if the city gets sued.
“I feel like if we take a stand it doesn’t change anything,” he said. “It accomplishes nothing put politics and is unfair to the people. It leaves us where we have been all along. I would like this to remain a city issue as long as possible.”
Navarre said he did not make the motion for political reasons. He said it is important that the city take a stand because the public has made it clear how they feel on the issue.
Molloy said he felt this entire situation could have been avoided if the council had an opportunity to look at Hamann’s design before the memorial was erected. “The process was backwards with the involvement with the public after design construction,” Molloy said. “This is a situation where the council wanted to do a good thing and have a memorial to honor veterans and have a place for celebrations. Now the horse is out of the barn. It is what it is, a veterans memorial. If we get sued we get sued.”
Hamann said he didn’t agree that the public was not involved in the design process. He said he made models, took them to the chamber of commerce, rotary club and showed the mayor and city manager.
“Frankly everybody that’s seen it sees it as I do,” he said. “The cross is not a religious symbol. It is a delineation of a grave marker for a fallen soldier. I was shocked when this became an issue and it still amazes me.”
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org