By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
Nine years ago, all he wanted to do was to make sure veterans returning home from a deployment could feel support from their community.
To do so, Brent Wittwer, a Gulf War veteran, began a campaign in 2003 to fly banners in Little Falls in support of U.S. troops. He wanted returning veterans to feel welcomed home.
He succeeded by collecting donations from businesses and organizations to pay for the banners that would say, “We Support Our Troops.”
Wittwer not only collected the money needed to purchase the banners, but also went before the Little Falls City Council in 2003. He had collected 804 signatures on a petition for the banners, and had collected the money to pay for three banners; all he asked was for permission and help from city staff to hang them.
The City Council at that time, granted permission for banners to hang in the city.
One was hung over First Street between the Black and White Cafe and the Falls Theatre. The other hung on Little Falls’ west side.
Wittwer was even honored by then-Mayor Brian Mackinac with a Mayor’s Pride Award for his efforts.
When the banner flying over First Street became weather-beaten and tattered, it was replaced by the Veterans Remembrance Memorial Committee, said Kate Davis, a council member at the time.
And it was hung on the American National Bank building to keep it visible with some protection from the elements.
At the time, Davis said there was no opposition to hanging the banners; not from individuals or city commissions, like the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC).
She said the HPC and other city commissions or committees are advisory in nature; they can recommend action from the Council, but the Council makes the ultimate decision.
Monday night Wittwer found himself again at City Hall, this time in front of a different City Council, to make a plea that the banner continue to be displayed in the city.
Wittwer read that Little Falls resident Robin Hensel wanted the city to take the sign down, because she said it violated the city’s sign ordinance. The same sign ordinance she was asked to abide by when the city received complaints from residents and requested she remove multiple signs in her yard.
When he read about the controversy over the banner, Wittwer said, “It lit a fire in me. I don’t care if the banner gets moved; I just want to make sure it’s visible to the community and the veterans.”
In 2003, Wittwer emphasized he wanted the content on the banners to be completely noncontroversial.
He said in an interview with the Record when the banners went up, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against the war. I just want to have our community come together in support of our troops. I don’t want to see them shunned as the Vietnam vets were. Our soldiers are simply following the orders of their commanders; they’ve made that commitment.”
So now, the 12-year military veteran, who has been in the Marines, the National Guard and the regular Army, and served in the Gulf War, will wait with everyone else interested in the issue.
The city’s sign ordinance has been under review by the city’s attorney and the Planning Commission will recommend revisions. Wittwer doesn’t plan to take any further action regarding the banner at this point, but feels the spin on the controversy has been very one-sided.
“The sign ordinance needs updating,” said Public Works Director and Co-City Administrator Jerry Lochner. “We want to protect people’s rights and treat everybody fairly; but what is fair? We certainly want to look at that and bring ourselves up to speed to make it fair.”
Lochner said the city is working to address the concerns over the sign ordinance in a timely manner, but government works slowly.
“We need to look at it and review and put it together in a manner that is fair and equitable. It’s (the sign ordinance) been this way for many, many years; we need a reasonable amount of time to correct it.”