Council backs neighbors in flap, orders flag down

Call it a show of patriotic pride. Or call it a crass red-white-and-blue marketing ploy.

Either way, the city of Las Vegas has ordered a Hummer dealership to take down an American flag that flies 100 feet above the business.

Dan Towbin, owner of Towbin Hummer, said he was in disbelief at the City Council's decision this week to require the business to take down the 30-by-60-foot Stars and Stripes that has flown since May 2006 in front of the dealership.

"It's ridiculous in today's day and age to suggest removing an American flag," he said.

Towbin must remove the flag within 60 days, though he said he was contemplating a lawsuit to challenge the council's unanimous action.

When Towbin originally got approval for his flag in May 2006, he agreed to a six-month review, contingent on complaints from neighbors of the dealership on Sahara Avenue near Lindell Road.

At Wednesday's City Council meeting, some residents showed up to complain about the noise from the flapping flag when the wind blows and the aesthetic effect of the looming flag pole.

At the meeting last year, Towbin employee Carl Marcello told the City Council that the dealership planned to build a memorial for military veterans at the base of the flag pole.

On Wednesday, council members and others questioned why Towbin had not built the memorial.

Steve Sanson, president of the locally based Veterans in Politics International, said he didn't believe the flag was about love of country but was instead intended to make the Hummer dealership a landmark.

"What disturbs us is the exploitation of veterans," said Sanson, a Marine in Desert Storm. The flag "is being used for selfish financial gain."

Wayne Earl, 80, who lives near the dealership, said he wasn't bothered by the noise like some of his neighbors but wanted it removed anyway.

"I like to see the flag flown. I don't like to see the flag used as a commercial draw," said the World War II veteran. "It should be flown reverently, not auspiciously."

Towbin insisted the flag is only about his patriotism.

"Whether my heart is in the right place, only I would know that," he said. "How would anyone else know that?"

He pointed to his involvement at Nellis Air Force Base where, he said, he is an honorary commander.

Towbin said the veterans memorial hasn't been built because he was waiting for the City Council's final approval of the flag.

A video of last May's City Council meeting shows Marcello, with Towbin standing next to him, telling the council that he understands they can review and order the flag pole removed after six months. Marcello then said the flag would be dedicated with a plaque and representatives from Nellis Air Force Base to coincide with the city's centennial celebration, which ended later that month.

The six-month review slipped through the cracks at City Hall, and it wasn't until recently that residents approached Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian to ask her about it.

Those for and against the flag's location lobbed accusations of un-Americanism at their opponents on Wednesday.

Towbin read a letter written by Joseph Esposito, president of Liberty Lock & Safe, next to the dealership.

The flag "fills my entire team of 55 employees with pride," Esposito wrote. "Any individual or group that would refer to this symbol of America as a nuisance, eyesore, or noisemaker should be looked at by the Department of Homeland Security to see where their sympathies lie."

Esposito, reached at his store Thursday, said he was "outraged" by the council's vote.

But Tarkanian, after extolling her love of the flag, told Towbin, "You're not doing this for the right reason."

Last May, Tarkanian had made a motion to allow Towbin to erect a 75-foot flag pole. But Towbin had said he had already bought the 100-foot pole and the flag. Tarkanian's motion failed 6 to 1.

Mayor Oscar Goodman then made the motion to allow Towbin to build the 100-foot-tall flag pole, with a six-month review.

"I would say publicly, whatever this body decides to do, I will live by it," Towbin said.

On Thursday, Goodman said he voted to take down the flag because the veterans memorial was not built.

Goodman said Towbin can reapply for a new flag pole.

The mayor also parried any accusations that the council's decision is unpatriotic by pointing to an ordinance passed under his watch that bans homeowner's associations from prohibiting the flying of American flags.

But Alan Lichtenstein, general council for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said flags can't get any special treatment under the law.

"There can be reasonable time, place and manner restrictions," he said. "But there can't be special rules based on content."

Lichtenstein noted, however, that the city gives variances all the time, often inconsistently.

David Chesnoff, Towbin's attorney, said any potential lawsuit would argue that "the decision was arbitrary and capricious, and also because of the First Amendment implications, that you can't fly a flag you've been flying for a year."

This isn't the first run-in Towbin has had with the city over flags.

Just before Memorial Day in 2004, Las Vegas code enforcement ordered small flags flying from vehicles at the Prestige Infiniti dealership removed because they were "attention gaining devices."

Towbin said he continued to fly the flags on the cars, and the city backed off after the story got national attention.