Santa Fe military veterans got some of the wind taken out of their sails when the city announced banners honoring veterans must come down from light poles on Cerrillos Road.
But the controversy may not end there, with the program’s leaders and a city councilor expressing anger at the way the city has handled the Hometown Heroes program, started in 2019 as a way to showcase the sacrifices Santa Fe veterans have made for their country.
The city sent a news release late Tuesday afternoon announcing the decision.
“Unfortunately, the manufacturer (Hapco Poles Products) has provided data that it’s not safe to mount any banners on these particular light poles along Cerrillos Road,” City Manager John Blair said in a news release, adding the city would begin looking for alternative ways to honor its military veterans.
Later that evening, Blair spoke to members of American Legion Post 12 to discuss the latest twist in a saga that started with the sort of pomp and circumstance one would associate with military events before recent events put the program in jeopardy. At stake are more than 300 banners emblazoned with the photos of Santa Fe’s veteran community — some as far back as World War II.
The banners for the past few years have been strapped to light poles along Cerrillos Road, from Memorial Day to Veterans Day.
Blair told the veterans’ group the city still supports the project and wants “to figure out a way to have the banners up … have it continue, but [it] just can’t continue on Cerrillos Road.”
He said city officials plan to meet with veteran groups and others Thursday in hopes of finding a solution.
But Blair’s words were of little salve to some vets and City Councilor Michael Garcia, the sponsor of the banner program’s resolution.
City councilors approved a plan to install the Hometown Heroes banners in 2019 after members of local veterans groups, including American Legion Post 12, asked for help initiating the program. That initial resolution made it clear the city was responsible for the costs — reported as $10,000 at the time — for installing and removing the banners.
After a seemingly flawless start, the program faced a number of unexpected challenges this year.
In what some veterans and their supporters said was a surprise move, in February the council voted to change some terms of the plan, moving the financial and installation responsibility to local Post 12.
Mayor Alan Webber said, among other problems, the deal violated Anti-donation Clause statutes that could leave the city vulnerable to having to also financially support other community organizations with free labor or financial help.
As the American Legion post struggled to find funds to ensure the banners went up before Memorial Day, City Councilor Signe Lindell in a council meeting informed her colleagues the Public Service Company of New Mexico said it would donate the time and staff to hang the banners this year.
Though PNM work crews began installations in May, the project was stopped when a lineman raised safety concerns about putting three banners on each light pole. If high winds turned those banners into sails, there could be enough force do dislodge the poles, according to a PNM spokesman.
As a result, only about 20 of the banners went up before Memorial Day, and soon they will be coming down.
Donald Christy, a U.S. Air Force veteran who helped spearhead the Hometown Heroes program, said Tuesday night the handling of the program has “turned into chaos.”
He said never in his discussions with City Hall officials over the years did they say to him, “You’ll have to put them up yourself.” He said the city should take full responsibility for keeping the program going.
The question of who now is in charge of the problem is unanswered.
Though Garcia was one of the councilors who introduced the new resolution shifting financial responsibility to Post 12 in February, he said Tuesday night he was “caught off guard” by the news release announcing the city’s stance.
“It is unfortunate that an important matter such as this, and as the sponsor of the current resolution supporting the veterans banner, that I have been notified via press release,” he said in a phone interview before the Tuesday meeting.
At the meeting, Garcia said every time he tried to work with city officials to find a way to put and keep the banners up, he is met with roadblocks — including varying excuses for why the city could not do it.
He said he saw a pattern of “challenge after challenge after challenge” getting in the way of having the city act to keep the program going.
The emotions generated by the meeting led to a testy exchange between Blair and Garcia, a noted critic of Webber’s administration.
Blair took issue with Garcia’s comments, saying they were “lies … conspiracy theories.”
“Nothing I’ve said is a lie,” Garcia countered.
Christy said during the meeting city councilors and officials never informed Post 12’s leadership about the change in the resolution. Garcia apologized for that oversight during the meeting.
Some attendees at Tuesday’s meeting asked Blair if other banners placed around the city, not related to the Hometown Heroes program, must come down as well. Blair said if those banners are attached to poles like the Hapco poles, “they’re going to come down.”
The original resolution notes the city’s Public Works Department said the banner plan conformed to all “applicable requirements and restrictions.”
In an email from May obtained by The New Mexican, Public Works Director Regina Wheeler wrote after it became clear the intent was to place three to four banners on each pole, she reached out to Hapco and was told the poles were not designed to hold any banners “safely.”
“They indicated that high winds could pull a light pole down,” she wrote.
“However, for the past two years, 2 banners have been installed on light poles without incident,” she added. “This was done based on NMDOT approval of putting up to two banners per pole.”
Garcia also said he was informed the city had discussions with Hapco regarding the poles, but was never provided any data or a study outside of the manufacturer’s recommendations.
“An official report has not been conducted to my knowledge,” he said.
Asked by some attendees if the city had conducted an initial study or report on whether the poles would hold the banners back in 2019, Blair said he was not aware of any.
The city, Blair emphasized, does not want the program to end. He said it’s possible Hometown Heroes could be moved to a city park or the Railyard or some more centralized area on poles that will bear their weight without endangering others.
Many cities around the country have similar Hometown Heroes banner programs that request donations to pay for the creation and installation of the banners, which feature an image of the veteran’s face, rank, branch and years of service.
In Santa Fe, people wanting to sponsor a banner for a family member or loved one pay $156 for the materials, but the costs associated with actually installing the banners are not covered by the fee.
Christy wrote in an email he’s received numerous calls from “irate” families about the situation, yet no one has asked for a refund and people seem willing to see how the meeting between the city and veterans groups plays out.
It’s unclear how much it cost the city to install the banners over the past few years.
Meanwhile, Ray Sandoval, spokesman for PNM, said the utility is ready to front the manpower and money to put the banners up once the city and veterans’ groups figure out what to do with them.
“We made a commitment; we will fulfill that promise,” Sandoval said.