With all the important local issues going on (to say nothing of the huge national problems we face) it seems funny to me to focus a column on a flag. Because a flag selection process, like the one to choose the , should be easy and straightforward and positive for everyone.
But there are already signs that the process that resulted in the flag the Altadena Town Council announced this week may well not end being any of those things.
Like anyone else who noticed that the Town Council was working on finding an official flag, I found out about it when Town Council members began to mention it (first on Facebook, then later through a more official email). That process, , was portrayed as an online vote for 11 different flag designs, none of which looked very much different from the other.
It would have been easy for residents to just shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, these all look the same," and forget about the whole thing, but what happened instead is that three new designs were added to the contest, solely from the initiative of residents who thought there should be more variation in the designs.
If you look at the Town Council's website, you will see that the new designs submitted online are the top three vote getters. One of them got 98 votes, the highest total online; one 76; and the third, submitted by a local artist, got more than 30.
However, none of these flags is the winner. The winning design is one that got 12 votes on the site. So how did it win?
Well, according to the chair of the Town Council, Dr. Sandra Thomas, the rest of the votes came in from in-person voting, a part of the contest that was not announced to those of us in the media.
Apparently, according to Thomas, by the time the contest was even up on the Town Council's website in mid-October, there were already volunteers running around town taking votes from residents on the original 11 designs. Eventually the other designs were added to the ballot as well, Thomas said, but this would have had to been after they were uploaded and created in response to the poll moving online.
So who were these volunteers, how many votes did they get for each design, where did they collect votes, and what process did they use? Nobody seems to have very much in the way of answers about that.
Thomas told me she does not have the final voting tallies on hand, though she said she could provide them some time after Christmas. She said volunteers were soliciting votes "everywhere" all over town, wherever they happened to be at the time. There were no ballot boxes or set voting locations, though voters did have to show their driver's licenses to prove they were from Altadena, according to Thomas.
Thomas said the process had been developed by the "Flag Committee," a committee consisting of Thomas and a couple members of the public (she was able to name two offhand but was unable to provide a full list of committee members before the holidays).
In time, we may have some more answers about how the voting worked, and the tallies, but it won't change the fact that most people never knew there was any voting going on until after it was underway. It won't change that there were new designs introduced midway through the process.
As it turns out, not even the Town Council was very involved in the process. They never discussed it in public at any of their meetings, and--according to Gino Sund, the former chair of the Town Council--the flag selection process was never discussed in private at any of the Council's executive committee sessions.
You might be asking whether a flag selection vote really matters all that much. Maybe not, but despite being something of an afterthought, 292 people voted in the online flag vote, and several people took the initiative to design flags even though they were not asked to.
Presumably, if the Town Council figures are right, at least 87 more people had to have voted in person for the winning design to beat the one that led by 87 votes in the online vote. So at least 379 people voted, compared to the 308 who turned up to vote for the actual Altadena Town Council elections in June.
The flag may not be the most pressing community issue, but the numbers show there are people out there who care, and judging from the comments on the Town Council's site, those who took the time to look at the flags online would like to have seen a process with more public input and better flag options.
So why is it that public input into the process was so sparse? The issue could have at least been raised during a Town Council meeting. The Altadenablog, my site and any other media who might have cared could have been consulted before voting actually started. There are several well-known email forums where Altadena neighbors exchange information and various Facebook pages that draw traffic all of which could have posted about it.
There is also the Altadena Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, which draws several dozen to its monthly meetings; the the Altadena Historical Society; and Altadena Heritage, all of which would have had people happy to be involved in the process, I'd wager.
And the plans for the flag itself go beyond simply displaying at the Town Council--Thomas told me she wants to see raised above Altadena in an official ceremony in the coming year.
If it is going to fly above the town, representing not just the Town Council, but also the entire community, shouldn't someone besides an unelected committee be involved in designing it?
There is no reason the process could not have been better: Why not get some real local artists a chance to put together a design? Give the public a chance to really study the designs and come up with a fair and reasonable voting process.
It's really actually a great opportunity for the Town Council: So few people know what they do or who they are or even that they exist. Why not give people something that allows them to participate in their community in a fun way and learn more about the Town Council?
To be fair, some in the Council are working to change this dynamic: getting a functional website was a good start. There is now a Town Council Twitter account. Some council members are closely involved in responding to the residents they represent on local email forums. There was some real discussion in this week's meeting on how the Council could help serve as a source of reliable information during events like the wind storms last month.
But how realistic is it for the Council to handle these types of things if something as simple as a flag design vote ends up shrouded in secrecy and confusion?
My advice to the Town Council: Just start over. There is no reason to rush to get it done. Instead, take the time to get some real Altadena artists involved, generate some really great designs, solicit public input, and set up a transparent voting process.
That way, when the flag is hoisted above Altadena, there won't be hundreds of people scratching their heads wondering where it came from and why they never heard anything about it.