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Cities, Mind Your Business

March 16, 2003

One of the great things about living in a nation that protects freedom of expression is that people can fly whatever flags they want. At any city event in Garden Grove or Westminster, Vietnamese emigres are welcome to fly the flag of their homeland, the Republic of South Vietnam.

Just as that freedom of expression protects them, it protects anyone else who wants to fly a different flag -- say, the flag of the current communist nation of Vietnam.

Westminster and Garden Grove unwisely have created foreign policy by designating the flag of vanquished South Vietnam as the official Vietnamese banner at city functions -- meaning it's the one those cities will fly at meetings and parades.

But local governments should not be setting policies on which nations will be recognized. We happen to have a U.S. State Department for that, as a federal government spokesman noted in a Times story last week. Uncle Sam already has persuaded Virginia legislators to kill a similar "official flag" designation for the South Vietnamese banner, so California Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Costa Mesa) shouldn't wait for federal intervention before abandoning his resolution pushing for the flying of both flags.

Most of Orange County's expatriate Vietnamese population holds understandably vitriolic feelings against the communist takeover that turned them into refugees. Many already display the South Vietnamese flag in their windows, which is their right. But political sentiments on foreign issues should not drive municipal decisions.

State and city officials tread outside their job descriptions when they make formal policy on international issues. They run the risk of marginalizing and insulting people who feel differently. In this case, they also make life difficult for federal officials who are working to restore normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam. And they waste time that could be spent on important work. There's no dearth of state and local issues for legislators and councils -- most notably, delivering services despite drastically reduced budgets.

The Westminster and Garden Grove councils could take their cue from the Irvine City Council's recent decision not to take a stand on pending war with Iraq. The cities would spend their time better by adopting ordinances similar to the one on the books in Irvine that require its council to stick to the work it was elected to perform.

Then the two municipalities that are home to Little Saigon could honor the sentiments of its residents by welcoming all individuals and private groups to fly whatever flags they choose and believe in -- as a symbol of the freedom we all enjoy in a democratic nation.

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