Argument Over the Honored Dead : Half-Staff Flap Is Run Up City's Flagpole in Avalon

Times Staff Writer

The mayor of this small Santa Catalina Island town may rule over only 2,000 people, but unlike most big-city counterparts, he or she has the power to lower city flags to half-staff when local residents die.

That has been the mayor's prerogative here for as long as anyone can remember, but that authority is now being challenged and the issue may end up on the ballot.

The flap began last month when the mayor denied a request to lower the flag for a resident who had lived on the island for 10 years.

Mayor Gilbert Saldana said the flag has traditionally been lowered only for those residents or mainlanders who had "contributed significantly to the betterment" of the city. Saldana said he did not personally know Ed DeNeufville, 59, and did not feel that the man met the criterion.

Saldana said he has turned down other requests in the three years since he has been mayor. He said the flags are lowered to half-staff for residents about 10 times a year.

"It has always been at the discretion of the mayor," Saldana said. "It comes with the office, with the responsibility."

Friends of DeNeufville, however, argued that the flag should be lowered either for all residents who ask or for none. They also said the mayor alone should not have the power to decide.

Carol Gunderson-West, a bartender at the Boat House and a friend of the deceased man, helped collect 150 signatures on a petition that was presented to the City Council asking that the flag be lowered for their friend.

The mayor was out of town when the petition was presented, and as a compromise, Mayor Pro Tem Irene Stobel had the flags at City Hall, Cabrillo Mole and the pier lowered to half-staff for two hours. The flags are usually lowered for the entire day.

"I'm hot," Gunderson-West said. "It's not up to one little man to decide for whom the flag gets lowered. It should either be raised for all or for no one."

Gunderson-West vowed to collect enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot as an initiative.

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