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A Very Nontransparent Flag

How many people voted for the official town flag? How did they vote? Who conducted the ballot? And how involved was the Town Council? The answers to these questions are pretty murky at this point.

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.

Timothy Rutt December 23, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Bravo, Dan! This has been an embarrassing dog's breakfast in terms of process and transparency. And the end result looks uninspiring and pedestrian, like something a bureaucrat would dream up. It needs to be shredded, the process started over again, and real dialogue engaged about it. It also would help if you and I were informed, too!
mister altadena December 23, 2011 at 03:36 PM
Things I think about this- * What's the need for this flag? We have already have a US, State & County flag. I suppose there are many in town who feel they need further identification. What's next? Neighborhood flags? * What's the rush? Why have a cut off date in Nov? Was the flag committee getting a discount on the flag production if the voting concludes before Xmas? * As many have said, let local artists, PCC or Art Center get a chance to enter their designs. One local person entered a design (which I personally didn't care for). * I'm still confused.... is this the Council's official flag or Altadena's official flag? I've seen it reported on Patch two different ways (12/22 story says "....the official flag for the Altadena Town Council") * Do a vote do over. Yeah, it knocks off some credibility now, but that would rise if the entire process was done properly. Weird that 98 online voters picked one design but in person voters went w/ a design that was so far down on the online list. DramaDena ...... again!
Hugo December 23, 2011 at 03:39 PM
And let some of us graphic designers participate.
Dan Abendschein (Editor) December 23, 2011 at 04:05 PM
Mr. Altadena - I have suggested in past articles it was to be the Town Council official flag, but based on my most recent talk with Dr. Sandra Thomas, it sounds like the intention is for it to be the overall community flag.
Dan Abendschein (Editor) December 23, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Thanks Tim, I hope the Town Council sees a chance for a fresh start here. The more I talked to people about this yesterday the more strange the whole process seemed. I like your phrase "embarrassing dog's breakfast" as well.
Lisa Hastings December 23, 2011 at 06:28 PM
There is a need for 8 more flags for the 8 census tracts. Local artists could compete. It would stimulate business in the community and enhance Altadena's image as a unique community.
Dickinson December 23, 2011 at 06:54 PM
Wow, I thought I was seeing some confused looks on the faces of many of the council members in meetings when I watch them on cable rerun....but couldn't figure out why. Now I think I see. Your comment "As it turns out, not even the Town Council was very involved in the process." is very enlightening. I think I'm with Mr Altadena about not really needing a flag...and how are the flags being paid for? I haven't seen anyone mention where the funding is coming from. I heard from a neighbor that, at the meeting, the council passed on donating money to the Sheriff's toy drive fund this year even tho they have in the past. Was this to pay for the flags? If so, I'm REALLY against those flags. In this economy community support is more important to me than a flag. Does anyone know how much or from where the money comes?
SteveB December 23, 2011 at 07:47 PM
First I've heard of it - I guess that is part of the problem. I do like Dan's suggestion that it is an opportunity to raise public awareness about the town council - for example, you could have a booth at the Altadena Farmers Market presenting the designs, a voting booth, along with info about the town council and other community resources.
Nico December 23, 2011 at 07:48 PM
Great work Dan...gets me thinking about the cost issue and others.
LisaR December 23, 2011 at 08:04 PM
I have lived in Altadena for 12 years now and have been UNimpressed with the town council and MASSIVELY IMPRESSED with our other community organizations and local media. Not only are the other groups much more proactive and better at communicating, they seem to focus more on issues of real substance that build the community. As notes, there is a lot of great talent up here. Town Council needs to get with the program.
Lisa Hastings December 23, 2011 at 09:33 PM
On second thought, each street should have their own flag designed by their own resident artist.
joy December 24, 2011 at 12:34 AM
Great reporting and analysis, Dan. Altadena is rightly known as a community of artists and writers, and as we know from Roland Barthes, signs such as flags can be important in establishing cultural history. It sounds like a very small handful of non-designers drew a design and decided they liked it. They should hang it in their living rooms. It would be a shame to allow them foist such an amateurish flag upon the entire community.
Phil Allen December 24, 2011 at 08:47 PM
City flags, and the contests to pick them, are very difficult to rally behind. Long experience shows me that just-folks see flags in general as "givens". As for city seals, what could possibly be more graphically boring? I believe widespread literacy--now in decline--is largely responsible. All that's needed is the printed name of the place. In the occasional effort to juice up the citizenry with projects like 'let's create a flag, everyone!', results are almost always worthless, and most often varieties of the "seal on a blanket" tragedy illustrated. However, with societal poverty-based changes all around, which may evolve into greater importance for local communities as people's mistrust of larger polities grows, local flags may too gain in importance. If they do, well-designed flags will signify stronger local identity. So, do it over, and do it right.
H Delu December 29, 2011 at 08:21 PM
I was one of those who voted online for one of the newer flag designs after I found out late in the process that there was voting going on about a community flag. I love the idea of having an Altadena flag and strongly feel the process should begin again with the council seeking input from our local artists. Also, many people wanted aspects of two of the newer flags put together, and some thought should be put into how to accomplish that.
Lisa Hastings December 30, 2011 at 03:21 AM
I voted 78 times online. My choice won.
Steve Lamb December 31, 2011 at 02:50 AM
A Altadena Community FLAG? I'd say you have GOT to be kidding, but alas it seems so.I'm glad that the town is in such good shape with all the businesses thriving on Lake, Lincoln and Fair Oaks, all the trails rebuilt,campsites restored, the Cobbestate safe, all the homeowners secure that time can be spent on such things.......
Steve Lamb December 31, 2011 at 02:51 AM
Whats next? Town Council members with ermine lined velvet capes and tiarras?
Lisa Hastings December 31, 2011 at 03:32 AM
As a long time resident of Altadena, I'm offended at all of the disrespect people are showing for our new flag.
Steve Lamb December 31, 2011 at 11:27 PM
This is exactly the problem with flags. They become vortexes of prejudice, hatred and offense. They have no intrinsic value or meaning. They are generally either tools of warfare or tools of oppression, but then I'm doing my yearly reading of "Common Sense". Why are you offended at the disrespect showed a flag that does not even exist yet, but you are not offended when the body creating said flag insults all of Altadena, say by rent seeking behaviors, selling votes to developers for donations to not for profits they control, and never paying attention to the needs of the local economy or schools? Why should this poorly designed ugly flag, a wretched rendition of bad European middle ages heraldry, something that as an American you should despise, be a center of your attention and love?
Steve Lamb December 31, 2011 at 11:30 PM
This is exactly the problem with flags. They become vortexes of prejudice, hatred and offense. They have no intrinsic value or meaning. They are generally either tools of warfare or tools of oppression, but then I'm doing my yearly reading of "Common Sense". Why are you offended at the disrespect showed a flag that does not even exist yet, but you are not offended when the body creating said flag insults all of Altadena, say by rent seeking behaviors, selling votes to developers for donations to not for profits they control, and never paying attention to the needs of the local economy or schools? Why should this poorly designed ugly flag, a wretched rendition of bad European middle ages heraldry, something that as an American you should despise, be a center of your attention and love?
Dickinson January 12, 2012 at 10:44 PM
What ever happened with the follow up to this article. It is after the holidays did you ever get the info you requested?
Lisa Hastings January 13, 2012 at 02:50 AM
Steve! My comments were pure satire. I took the article as a bit satirical, too; so much effort went into expounding on such a ridiculous topic. Of course the flag business is ridiculous and yes, there are so many more important things to worry about in Altadena! Yet I still think each block in Altadena should have their own flag designed by their own resident artist! (just kidding!)
Dan Abendschein (Editor) January 13, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Not yet Dickinson. I'll update you when I know more.

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