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Newton councilors call on mayor to allow firefighters’ flag at station

More than 200 protesters demonstrated in front of Newton's Fire Station 4 this month, demanding that Mayor Ruthanne Fuller allow the Nonantum station to fly a flag commemorating firefighters who have died.
More than 200 protesters demonstrated in front of Newton's Fire Station 4 this month, demanding that Mayor Ruthanne Fuller allow the Nonantum station to fly a flag commemorating firefighters who have died.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Most of Newton’s city councilors are calling on Mayor Ruthanne Fuller to reverse a decision limiting flags at public buildings and allow a commemorative flag to be displayed by firefighters at a Nonantum fire station.

The councilors’ request follows a labor complaint filed by the city’s firefighters with state labor officials earlier this month over the flag issue. Fuller, who said she supports the firefighters flag, said she would fly the flag at Newton City Hall.

In mid-June, Fuller ordered all city departments to display only US flags and Newton banners on city buildings. This included a “Thin Red Line” flag -- which features a red stripe drawn across a black-and-white version of the US flag -- that had been displayed at Fire Station 4 for more than two years in honor of firefighters who have died.

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Fuller has said publicly and in an e-mail with firefighter Marc Rizza, the president of Local 863, that her decision to limit flags was not about the firefighters’ flag.

Instead, it was about “not putting the City in the position of picking and choosing which banners, flags, and ideas put forward by our employees that we as a City will support,” Fuller told Rizza.

But Fuller’s order, announced shortly before Flag Day, led hundreds of supporters to protest the decision outside the fire station on June 15. Some protesters carried images of family members who had been firefighters in Newton and other cities.

The group of 20 councilors asked Fuller in a June 26 letter to allow firefighters to display an alternative -- a solid black flag with a single red stripe.

"We believe this design is noncontroversial and appropriate," councilors wrote. "Please reconsider your decision so that we can move forward."

The councilors who signed the letter included Maria Scibelli Greenberg, Andrea Kelley, Alison Leary, Marc Laredo, Victoria Danberg, David Kalis, Deborah Crossley, Emily Norton, Richard Lipof, Rebecca Walker Grossman, Alicia Bowman, Jacob Auchincloss, Andreae Downs, R. Lisle Baker, Julia Malakie, Joshua Krintzman, Allan Ciccone, Holly Ryan, Christopher Markiewicz, and council President Susan Albright.

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Rizza, the union president, said Tuesday he would need to know more about the proposals made by Fuller and the councilors.

According to the union’s filings with the state labor relations agency, ordering the removal of the flag -- also referred to as the Firefighter Remembrance Flag -- violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city.

The order was given without notice, the complaint said, and the union did not have the opportunity to bargain over the flag's removal.

"The City's issuance of the punitive and targeted order demanding the removal of a US flag on the weekend of Flag Day was intended to chill and deter Local 863 and its agents from engaging in concerted, protected activity on behalf of the bargaining unit represented by Local 863," the union's complaint said.

The city is flying a Gay Pride flag on a ceremonial pole on the City Hall’s south lawn. The union noted in its complaint that the flag is not a city banner or American flag.

Ellen Ishkanian, a city spokeswoman, pointed to a city flagpole policy that allows the mayor to choose a flag to be displayed on that pole.

A flag on that pole must promote “education, culture, science, the arts, City departments, programs and policies, distinguished achievements, and any special events,” according to the flagpole policy.

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“The Mayor would be happy to fly the Firefighter’s Memorial Flag...at City Hall on the ceremonial flag pole on the South lawn,” Ishkanian said, referring to the flag that had been flying at Fire Station 4.

The flag has its roots in an 1854 battle during the Crimean War that involved a group of outnumbered British soldiers, according to the union complaint. Their distinctive red uniforms led to the term “Thin Red Line of Courage,” it said.

The term now refers to the “valiant efforts of firefighters in the face of life-threatening danger,” the complaint said.

The flag at Station 4 was visible to every member of the city’s fire department because the Nonantum station is used for training department members throughout the year, the complaint said.

In Fuller’s June 14 e-mail to Rizza, which was included in union complaint filings with the state Department of Labor Relations, Fuller said the city would allow only the US flag and city-created banners.

The city “will not be censoring/endorsing all sorts of other ones, including some that are fabulous like the FF Remembrance Flag,” she wrote.

Fuller said she strongly supports the values and ideas it represents.

“The firefighter family has my full support and I am particularly grateful to those who have put themselves in harms way,” she wrote. “They will eternally have my gratitude.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.