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Council to debate fee waiver for vets parade with Confederate groups
Austin American-Statesman - 8/9/2018
Aug. 09--The Austin City Council will vote Thursday on a resolution that aims to prevent Confederate heritage organizations from participating in the coming Veterans Day parade.
Mayor Steve Adler is the lead sponsor of the resolution, which states that fee waivers for Veterans Day events should be reserved for ones that "honor only those who have served in the United States of America's Armed Forces."
Those fee waivers likely would amount to at least $20,000 in leverage the City Council could put to bear against the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post that organizes the November parade. For the Veterans Day parade and similar ones, the City Council almost always waives the fees for providing police, emergency medical services, trash collection and other city services.
Last year, waived fees for the veterans parade totaled $21,636, according to the city.
"It is blackmail from the mayor and council if you ask me," said Terry Ayers, spokesman for Descendants of Confederate Veterans. The descendants group and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are the two Confederate heritage groups that have marched in the parade in recent years, generally dressed in replica uniforms.
"They are saying, 'We don't like these two groups. So if you allow these two groups in it, we are going to make you pay for it,'" Ayers added.
Adler's resolution is co-sponsored by three other council members: Greg Casar, Sabino "Pio" Renteria and Kathie Tovo. It is the latest move by the council to address the historical presence of the Confederacy in Austin.
In recent weeks, the city published a report that identified several streets named for Confederate figures as possible targets for renaming. In April, the city renamed streets that recognized Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who was president of the Confederacy.
"I don't think that the city can have an intent to focus on any viewpoint to which it disagrees," Adler told the Statesman, "but what the city can do is promote a certain value. In this case, it is honoring those that have served the armed forces of the United States of America and focusing just on those armed forces."
Manuel Jimenez, an Iraq War veteran and the head of ATXVets, said the presence of Confederate heritage groups in the parade endorses a "symbol of hate." Jimenez founded ATXVets in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to pull state grant funding from Travis County's veterans court because the sheriff's office at the time was refusing to honor federal detention requests placed on jail inmates suspected of breaking immigration laws.
"(The groups' participation) been controversial for years," Jimenez said. "It is not something that just popped up."
In 2015, Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt called for the Confederate battle flag to be pulled from the parade. The county eventually cut ties with the committee that organizes the parade. Eckhardt refused to march in the parade in 2016.
In 2017, the Confederate groups agreed to pull the battle flag, which Ayers and Sons of Confederate Veterans head Marshall Davis said had been co-opted by hate groups. Instead, the marchers waved the national flag of the Confederacy that's also known as the "stars and bars." That year, Adler joined Eckhardt in refusing to participate in the parade.
The decision about whether the Confederate heritage groups can participate this November lies with the parade committee for the Austin Veterans Day Parade organization. Members of the committee as well as the head of Oak Hill VFW Post 4443, which is organizing the parade, did not respond to phone calls or emails from the Statesman.
City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African-American on the council, said Wednesday during a council work session that she was "uncomfortable" with the resolution.
"I think it is exclusionary," Houston said, directing her comments at Adler. "I think you are trying to say something without saying what you are trying to say because it would probably be against free speech."
Houston went on to ask whether a future council might be able to prevent people of certain nationalities from applying for fee waivers for special events.
"Everybody should have a right to request (a fee waiver)," Houston said. "The council has a right not to grant it. That process is already in place."
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