New ordinance on grave decorations passes 1st reading in L.W.

By Kara Phelps
News Chief staff

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

LAKE WALES – A committee-written ordinance on grave decorations had its first reading Tuesday by the Lake Wales City Commission, drawing a range of comments from commissioners and the public.

In the wake of a controversy surrounding the city’s removal of grave decorations, a committee of Lake Wales residents and city staffers reviewed the ordinance on cemetery ornaments. Resident participation at the five weekly meetings ranged from 10 to 17 people.

The committee proposed a list of changes, adding rules, removing some and altering the language on others. They added responsibilities for the city and for cemetery visitors, and created a section outlining rules for notifying plot owners of a noncompliant grave.

The committee decided to notify plot owners by putting a marker on the grave. If the violation isn’t corrected within 30 days, the proposed ordinance states the objects in question will be removed.

Public Services Administrator Teresa Allen said addresses are hard to find, especially when local family members aren’t on the plot deed.

Commissioner Alex Wheeler suggested sending letters to the families who could be tracked down.

Some speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing said they were dissatisfied with city government for botching the cemetery cleanup. Others said they were satisfied with the process of the committee meetings. Still others pointed to aspects of the proposed ordinance they wanted to change.

Nancy Kilburn, a committee member, said she would have liked a rule about American flags to be different. She said her son has a Confederate flag on his grave and argued non-American flags should be appropriate.

"We don’t need flags causing a problem," said David Smith, president of the Lake Wales chapter of the NAACP.

City Manager Judy Delmar said the ordinance would allow American flag "no larger than 13 inches by 8 inches" to be placed on graves on Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day. Smaller flags, at 6 by 4 inches, can decorate graves year-round, and Delmar said the ordinance doesn’t have restrictions on the type of the smaller flags.

Commissioners agreed to leave the language about flags as it stands in the proposal.

"When you come to this country, you need to respect the beliefs of the country and the flag," Mayor Jack Van Sickle said.

Said Wheeler: "I can easily see chaos reigning if we permitted any other flag than the American flag"

Commissioner John Paul Rogers referred to himself as "a Confederate veteran," although he said he approved of the proposed language about flags. He said the presence of other flags could take away from honoring veterans on Veterans’ Day.

Commissioners mostly praised the committee members for arriving at a compromise after debate.

"It’s a great thing that government and the community can come together," Commissioner Jonathan Thornhill said.

This fall, controversy arose when cemetery workers removed decorations that didn’t comply with the old ordinance, which had not been enforced for several years. City staff sent letters to 29 families with the worst violations. Although officials originally had planned to send a letter to every family with a grave site violation and give a 30-day deadline to comply, city workers removed every grave decoration that didn’t meet code.

Families flooded an October commission meeting with pictures of grave sites stripped of decorations and heated words for city officials. Afterward, the city organized the cemetery ordinance committee to decide whether the rules, last reviewed in 1996, were still appropriate, and whether the language needed clarifying.

The City Commission will hold the second and final reading in the next few weeks, with another public hearing to be announced. At that time, if commissioners vote to accept the ordinance, it will become law.

The proposed ordinance can be found in full on the city of Lake Wales Web site at

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