DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners voted unanimously in February to allow voters to decide whether a Confederate flag should continue to fly outside the courthouse.
It seemed at that time to have been clearly stated that whatever decision about the flag was reached in November balloting would be enacted.
But something appears to have been lost in translation.
County Attorney Sidney Noyes now says that the 65 percent of voters who opted to leave the flag where it was were simply expressing an opinion.
“The referendum on the Confederate flag was not binding,” Noyes wrote in a Nov. 19 email to Seber Newsome III, a defender of Confederate monuments who had made a public records request seeking clarity on the issue.
Noyes confirmed in an email Wednesday that while she considered the referendum to have been non-binding, it is the commitment of the County Commission to follow the will of the majority of voters that is binding, she said.
"Nothing has changed. The intent of the Commission was clearly to honor the will of the voters," the email said. "F.S. (Florida Statute) 125 does not allow binding straw ballots on this type of measure, so while not technically legally binding, the Board’s intent was to be bound by the results,"
Noyes’ response to Newsome surprised Walton County Supervisor of Elections Bobby Beasley, whose office received his public records request.
“I was a little shocked to hear it wasn’t binding,” Beasley said. “I think in general, people thought that it was.”
The issue of the Confederate flag on the courthouse property has been controversial for several years. The wording on the referendum, which called for a yes or no vote, said:
“Shall a Confederate Flag, or any version thereof, be allowed to be displayed at the Walton County Courthouse property located in DeFuniak Springs, Florida?”
A quick review of County Commission meeting archives revealed how residents could have reached the conclusion November's flag vote was final.
On the day the county decided to put the referendum on the ballot, Stephen McBroom, a fourth-generation Walton County resident, flag supporter and member of a group called Save Southern Heritage, asked specifically whether the vote would be binding.
“I’d like to put it to bed once and for all,” McBroom told commissioners. “There’s been a lot of heartache, name calling and conflict.”
“I think this is binding,” Board Chairman Bill Chapman told McBroom.
Chapman then asked Heather Christman, who was acting as county attorney at the Feb. 13 meeting, to validate his statement.
“What the voters decide will be binding,” Christman said.
Chapman had also commented that the referendum would “give voters the opportunity to express their opinions one way or the other,” but that statement came before McBroom requested confirmation on whether the decision of the voters would be binding.
Sarah Comander, the now former Walton County Commissioner who made the motion to call for the Confederate flag referendum, said Noyes was “totally incorrect” in her assessment that the November vote isn’t binding.
“That was the reason it was voted on, to put this to bed,” Comander said. “Like it or not, to me the voters have spoken loud and clear.”
A Confederate flag has flown over a monument to Civil War dead outside the Walton County Courthouse since 1964.
In July of 2015, commissioners voted 4-0 to replace the Stars and Bars, a battle flag first flown by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, with the less controversial first national flag of the Confederate States of America.
Even after the change was made, the flag flying at the courthouse remained controversial. The Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce opted in 2016 not to hold its four-day annual conference at Sandestin to protest the decision to keep a Confederate flag flying.