The rift between the veterans of Warren County and the City of Warren has closed somewhat.
Eight representatives of the Warren County Veterans Council, which includes 10 veterans organizations, met with city officials Tuesday afternoon at the municipal building.
At issue was a city special event policy that requires all groups that want to reserve city parks to pay $100 and cover any additional city services. The payment does not fill city coffers, City Manager Nancy Freenock said, adding that it covers the cost of officials' time working on the necessary considerations for the park use.
Veterans organizations from throughout the county have traditionally held some public ceremonies in city parks. In the past, the veterans council paid the electricity bill for, and maintained, Gen. Joseph Warren Park in exchange for the use of parks. A Veterans Day ceremony is traditionally held at Soldiers and Sailors Park and an MIA/POW ceremony is held at Gen. Joseph Warren Park.
That agreement was ended after a January meeting. According to veterans council president and Warren County Veterans Affairs Director Ed Burris, he was "ordered" by the city Parks and Recreation Commission to stop paying the electrical bill.
Freenock said she was told the veterans were given the option to stop paying or to work out some other agreement.
At least in part as a response to the events policy, the veterans council moved the annual Memorial Day ceremony from the Warren County Courthouse steps to Youngsville Cemetery this year.
City officials said they were disappointed that the veterans' concerns were aired in the Times Observer before they were brought to the city.
Burris said he had requested a meeting with Freenock and met instead with the commission before the press was involved.
Freenock explained that the policy was not intended to disrespect anyone nor to single anyone out. "You gentlemen feel disrespected," she said. "That was not intended. Ever."
In fact, she said, the policy was recommended by the city solicitor on the basis of fairness.
"We are required by law to have equal opportunity for everyone," council member John Lewis said.
That did not ease the veterans. "It hurt a lot of people," Gary Seymour said. "There were rumors floating."
"I apologize that the correct information was not out there," Freenock said.
The policy allows groups to use the parks without paying the fee if they do not reserve exclusive use. Freenock explained that any groups, including veterans groups, are welcome to not pay and "take your chances" that no other group is using the park in question at that time.
The money is no object, according to Lewis, adding that veterans have approached him and told him that they will cover the costs. "'If there's a $100 fee, they don't ever have to pay it. See us,'" he said they told him.
"If you want to reserve it, the check is written," Lewis said. "So, there is no fee."
"If that's the only issue, move (the Memorial Day ceremony) back in town," he said. "It's embarrassing to me as a veteran."
"Let's make peace here," he said.
"We do hope you'll come back," Freenock said told the veterans.
Even if the money was the problem, the veterans' representatives did not promise to return. "I can't tell you we're going to move everything back to the city," Burris said. Some veterans and others have expressed approval of the idea of holding ceremonies at locations outside the city, he added.
"Maybe it's more appropriate at the cemetery anyway," Gary Fry said.
But money is not the problem, according to the veterans.
"It's never been about the money," Burris said. "It's the principle."
"The principle seems to come back to the money," Lewis said. "What's the principle?"
"We were happy paying the electrical," Burris said. "We were happy doing the maintenance."
"If we were looking for cheaper, we would have said, 'hey, this is great,'" he said.
"What we've been told by our solicitor is that every group must be treated equally," Freenock said. "That's what we're trying to do."
Some of the veterans expressed disapproval at some other events held at Gen. Joseph Warren Park.
"We consider that hallowed ground," Seymour said. "We don't want to see port-a-potties set up there ever again. That was the worst possible thing you could do."
He suggested the possibility of designating the park a veterans memorial.
Lewis encouraged the veterans to bring a proposal to city council.
Freenock suggested a lasting solution to the issue.
"Would the veterans council accept the deed for the (Gen. Joseph Warren Park) property?" she asked.
"We would consider that," Burris said.
Both groups said they would have to have more information before entering into that agreement.
The groups left the meeting on good terms. More important than bringing events back to the city is the closing of the rift.
"I think we have accomplished a lot," Burris said. "I want to thank everybody for not losing their tempers."
"We need to be at peace," Lewis said.
"It sounds like we are," Fry said.
Both sides went away with positive feelings about the meeting, although the work is not finished.
Asked if the end point was satisfactory to the veterans, Burris said, the issue of 'principle' "still does exist."
"I think that we have opened a line of communication that we can work from," he said. "You never solve everything in the first meeting."
In addition to Burris, Seymour, and Fry, Al Harrison, Paul Lauffenburger, Dan Edmiston, Ed Seebeck, and Bob Hansen represented the veterans groups.
Burris said veterans council meetings are open to all of the county's veterans. Meetings are held at American Legion Post 135 at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of every month, although there will not be another meeting until October.