PORTSMOUTH — His name was never mentioned during Portsmouth City Council’s two months of discussion, but he says he still felt its impact.
An 11-year renter of the city’s campgrounds, Bob Lewis has presented as many as 26 flags, including the American, Ohioan and 9/11 ones, from his riverfront property throughout the years. One of his flags however received condemnation from the council as they looked into potentially banning it from city property.
His flag display is visible from boaters in the Ohio River and those walking by the campgrounds during the rental season. Most years, Lewis said that display included the confederate flag although not as prominent as others.
“I’ve had hundreds of people tell me those flags were great,” he said during a Monday phone interview. “I’ve never once had nobody complain about that confederate flag.”
Complaints about its presence went public during a November City Managers session, where 2nd Ward Charlotte Gordon asked City Solicitor John Haas about a legal basis for a ban.
Any attempt at a ban would be met with a legal battle on First Amendment grounds, a battle Haas was quite certain would be a losing proposition for the city. The item has never moved to either the manager or council agenda, instead remaining in discussion and preventing any real decision on the matter.
“The bottom line is that the City cannot restrict the display of flags by private citizens,” said Haas in an earlier statement provided to the Portsmouth Daily Times, where the government can restrict itself but not citizens. “If the campground were privately owned, the private owner could ban the display of the flag because the First Amendment would not apply.”
Seeing it as a hate symbol, Gordon was joined by most council members in their opinion of the flag, including most recently 4th Ward Lyvette Mosley who often visits the riverfront for fishing.
“When I see that flag, I feel intimidated and threatened,” she said on Jan. 25, asserting the same view on the flag as Jan. 11. “Whatever I’m doing, I go the other way because I don’t want trouble.”
Even without an official ban, the talks and public response pushed Lewis to take action on his display. City Manager Sam Sutherland said Public Service Director Jack Tackett spoke with Lewis, although not mentioning his name, and a resolution perhaps was met.
This season, starting in May, Lewis will not present the flag from his rental property.
“I’ve had phone calls, texts from people at the campground and other people,” he said, where some messages were in reference to a potential increased monthly rate if the flag was still flown. “I’m not saying one way or another what they said, but it’s not a happy thing.”
That proposal, where 1st Ward Councilman Sean Dunne suggested changing the rate from $250 to $325 as a way to “tax their hate,” Lewis and friend Nancy Craigmiles said unfairly pit the renters against him and painted an unfavorable and untrue image.
“I fear that council’s words have the potential to create racial tensions, where there was none before,” reads Craigmiles’ letter presented during the Jan. 25 session. She later described the conversations as an “unjustified vendetta against Mr. Lewis,” a friend of about 15 years, in an email to the Times.
The reality, Lewis said is that he is someone who cares deeply about the campground experience and maintaining proper groundskeeping. It was in his view that his display “beautified the looks” of the riverfront, the flags more in remembrance and in honor of veterans.
Just this past summer, when the city’s Fourth of July fireworks show status seemed uncertain, he went to work to put on a show. Through conversations with fellow renters, he raised more than $1,300 and later delivered that sum to a business across the river that sells fireworks.
“I did it for the people of the campground, for the grandkids, for their kids,” Lewis said.
This, he argues is a better depiction of who he is: never one to instigate or to induce problems for his neighbors.
“I worked in the south, I worked in the north, I worked in the east, and I worked in the west,” he said. “I never had no problem no matter where I went, working with any type of people.”
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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