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Battle Brewing Over Control Of SF Castro District Pride Flag

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) - The iconic rainbow flag that flies over the Castro in San Francisco was the topic of Thursday's Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District meeting as the board decides whether to ask the Department of Public Works to convene a meeting on the flag.

Concern over who controls the flag came to a head in March when community members requested that the flag operators, the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, lower the flag to mark the death of gay icon and actress Elizabeth Taylor, Castro Benefit District executive director Andrea Aiello said.

MUMC denied the request, the group's president Steve Adams said. The group receives up to 10 requests each month to lower the flag for various reasons, and the board has to limit the number of lowerings.

"For us, the flag is a source of pride. People want it up as much as possible," Adams said.

For the past 12 years, the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro have had control of the flag, located at the corner of Market and Castro streets, Adams said.

The flagpole is on city land, but the merchants' association funds the insurance and upkeep of the rainbow flag in a "public-private partnership," which Adams considers of benefit to the city's Department of Public Works.

A DPW spokeswoman said the city maintains the area and landscaping around the flag, but has an agreement with MUMC that it is responsible for the flag and pole.

Adams said the city decided in the late 1990s to give control of the flag to the merchants' association.

"The city didn't want to deal with the liabilities of the flag," he said.

According to Adams, MUMC spends $5,000 annually for insurance related to the flag, along with $4,000 per year to maintain the flag, which is replaced every three months.

"As simple it may seem to have a gigantic flag there, it's not cheap," Supervisor Scott Weiner said, whose district includes the Castro. "It requires effort. The city does not have resources to do this."

Gay blogger and activist Michael Petrelis questions MUMC's authority over the flag.

"There's been no public discussion about how MUMC managed to get control of city property that is important to the gay community around the world," Petrelis said.

He became concerned with the flag's management earlier this year when MUMC denied requests to lower the flag when actress Taylor died.

"I don't think it would be such a burden to have the flag lowered," he said.

Petrelis said control of the flag goes beyond lowering the rainbow colors when a gay icon dies. He said the flag and space around it should be used creatively, such as hoisting an American flag next to the rainbow flag on Harvey Milk Day in May.

"Everyone is fine with the current setup," Adams said, adding that Weiner knows about the agreement between MUMC and DPW and that there has been no controversy until earlier this year.

"When you have an organization like MUMC that has shown a willingness to pay for and manage the flag that's a good thing," Weiner said.

Aiello with the CBD says tonight's 6 p.m. meeting would include discussion on establishing a protocol for community input on all things flag-related.

"We understand MUMC owns it, but we want to have more community input," Aiello said.

The benefit district board is not proposing that the city or any other entity take over funding or maintenance of the flag, but is asking if the community wants more insight into MUMC's decision-making processes for the flag, she said.

(Copyright 2011 by CBSSan Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)

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