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California Dept. of Transportation: ‘Be Sure to Black Out the ‘United States’ and [the] Motto’

10:10 AM, Feb 20, 2013 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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For three years, a private citizen named Steve LeBard has led the effort to build a privately funded memorial in Orcutt, California—a tranquil small town located on the Golden State’s gorgeous Central Coast—to honor military veterans.  And for the better part of those three years, he has run into a toxic blend of political correctness, anti-Americanism, and bureaucratic senselessness.  Today, the memorial, which was to be built with private funds on a small piece of public land, remains unbuilt.

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LeBard is head of the private Old Town Orcutt Revitalization Association (OTORA), the type of voluntary civil association that Tocqueville said was the key to democratic civilization but which the central planners tend to view as getting in the way of their central planning and controlling.  At an official hearing on Tuesday, the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) reiterated its refusal to allow LeBard to build the memorial because he wishes it to include the symbols or seals (depending upon the service) of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard (all of which have supported his efforts by giving him written permission for their use). 

CalTrans, it seems, regards certain aspects of the services’ symbols or seals as problematic.  For example, the Army’s permission letter to LeBard clearly states that its symbol “cannot be altered in any manner.”  But CalTrans wants it altered.  Specifically, CalTrans demands the removal of the motto “E Pluribus Unum” — which appears on our coins, has appeared on the Great Seal of the United States since the 18th century, and was first proposed as the motto for such a seal on July 4, 1776.  CalTrans also demands the removal of two other words — “United States.”  (This would leave just one word on the symbol:  “Army.”)  As CalTrans wrote to LeBard in advance of the hearing, “Be sure to black out the ‘United States’ and motto part of the seal.”

This is only the latest round of LeBard’s dealings with CalTrans, and a less determined citizen surely would have given up long ago.  Originally, LeBard and OTORA raised the money for the veterans’ memorial, and in 2011 he asked CalTrans for permission to build it by a park-and-ride near a highway on-ramp and off-ramp, where people enter and exit when traveling to and from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base.  Because the memorial was to be built around an American flag, CalTrans refused to grant OTORA permission to build it. 

Citing its own interpretation of a decision issued by a 3-judge panel of the Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (and the policy that CalTrans developed in its aftermath), CalTrans declared that hanging an American flag on public land constitutes an impermissible act of “public expression.”  As CalTrans explained to LeBard at the time, if it allowed an American flag to be hung, “we would be placed in a position of having to permit all forms of expression….As such, the department has determined that the state highway system is not a forum for public expression….” 

LeBard subsequently did some digging and found that California law expressly declares, “The Flag of the United States of America and the Flag of the State of California may be displayed on a sidewalk located in or abutting on a state highway situated within a city….”  So CalTrans reluctantly allowed OTORA to put up a pole in the middle of the sidewalk and hang an American flag from there.  But that was the end of CalTrans’s magnanimity.  It told OTORA that it could not place the flagpole ten feet off of the sidewalk, leaving space for an armed forces memorial; could not expand the sidewalk enough to accommodate a memorial; and could not build a new, short sidewalk off of the main sidewalk, with the new sidewalk leading to a memorial.  CalTrans told OTORA it must, however, expand the sidewalk slightly — to accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

LeBard then sought to get CalTrans to sell the small patch of land in question to Santa Barbara County, which had expressed enthusiastic support for OTORA’s patriotic and privately funded project.  OTORA would simply be required to pay the “nominal fee” that CalTrans would charge the county for the small plot of land.  Having received some unflattering publicity about its dealings with OTORA from THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and subsequently from Fox News, CalTrans seemed happy to get rid of the land — and LeBard. 

But just when all appeared to be nearly resolved, the current director of CalTrans, Malcolm Dougherty, wrote a letter to LeBard in which he declared the following:

“In order to sell its property, Caltrans is required to review and approve metes and bounds, draft property descriptions for fair market appraisal, and obtain review and approval by the Right of Way Division, the Environmental Division, the Project Development Division, and Maintenance and Operations Division of Caltrans to ensure that no other public projects require the property and that there are no archaeological or environmental impediments to the relinquishing of the property.

“This process requires extensive public labor and other resources.  A conservative estimate to cover the cost of these resources is $10,000.” 

(If anyone believes President Obama’s ongoing suggestion that a massive and growing bureaucracy doesn’t undermine individual initiative or civic vibrancy, they might want to read that passage.)

In other words, OTORA would have to pay $10,000 to CalTrans (based on a “conservative estimate”) just to decide how much CalTrans would then charge for the land that CalTrans would sell to Santa Barbara County at OTORA’s expense.

LeBard said no thanks and pursued yet another angle.  Having learned that CalTrans had sanctioned — as a Transportation Art Program project — the building of Chicano Park in San Diego, where murals feature portraits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, LeBard decided to reclassify his intended memorial as an art project.  He called it, “A Tribute to the Protectors of Freedom.” 

At first, CalTrans encouraged the idea.  But then, perhaps inevitably, it determined that the words “United States” and “E Pluribus Unum” aren’t nearly so benign as the likenesses of communist revolutionaries; that, unlike such likenesses, the name of our country and the motto on our Great Seal — like our flag itself — have no place on our public lands. 

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