Last week, several pieces in New Times defended 5th District supervisorial candidate Ellen Beraud's March 27, 2007, vote against building of the Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial in Atascadero. Her supporters insist she really didn't vote against the memorial, just the art. Such justifications are an obfuscation of facts.
The Veterans Memorial Foundation was formed in the spring of 2006 to build a memorial to recognize the loss of the eight young men from Atascadero killed in action during the Vietnam War. For a town of 15,000, it was a devastating loss.
The Veterans Foundation was led by the late Col. Bill Hatch, who provided focus throughout the effort. The artist selected by the group was local and had produced many oil paintings and numerous sculptures in the region. His work was notable, the committee liked it, and he had some national prominence: One of his oil paintings was purchased and displayed by internationally renowned Marine biologist Jacques Cousteau.
By July 2006, the Veterans Foundation approached the city and had the concept placed on the council agenda for August. When we briefed the council, the Parks and Recreation Department director stated that we had to submit to design review by the Arts in Public Places Advisory Committee, which had not been used in 10 years.
The advisory committee had strong opinions, seemingly motivated more by political concerns than giving the memorial design a fair hearing. They were highly critical, especially of the soldier/statue and the fact he was carrying a gun. It was during a high-point of protest against the Iraq War, and the memorial was being sucked into that protest as a symbol of anti-war activism.
The art critique was unfair and harsh toward both the design and artist. None of the committee members had any comparable experience to that of our artist, and their demands would have compromised, even defeated, the foundation's desire to honor fallen veterans. We weren't interested in incorporating politically driven anti-war sentiments as a theme. So harsh was the art advisory committee's evaluation that the parks and rec director apologized to the foundation.
The advisory committee's findings were presented to the full City Parks and Recreation Commission, which unanimously rejected the recommendations and approved the design as submitted by the Veterans Memorial Foundation, forwarding it to the City Council for final approval. It was placed on the council agenda as a consent item for the March 27, 2007, meeting. Consent agenda items are considered routine with no further review required: Only a single council yes or no vote is required for approval of the entire consent agenda.
Councilwoman Ellen Beraud pulled item No. 6, "approval of the Veterans Memorial." She attempted to revisit the design, which was a settled matter. The City Council rejected Beraud's arguments about revisiting the design, and the motion on the floor was to approve building the memorial or not. The council voted to approve the memorial on a 4-1 vote with Beraud casting the lone "no" vote on the motion. Even her two liberal political allies voted to approve moving forward to build the Faces of Freedom Memorial.
Finally, during council comments where no public rebuttal was permitted, Beraud cast a slur at the Veterans Memorial Foundation, accusing us of using "tactics of intimidation" against the council, which was untrue. Previously, Beraud and her anti-war supporters objected to the presence of uniformed American soldiers, recently returned from combat tours in Iraq/Afghanistan quietly observing the proceedings as also somehow being "intimidating." It was an insult not forgotten and reflects the worldview Beraud holds as an aspiring public official.
The Veterans Memorial Foundation is not political. Its board of directors is made up of residents from all political backgrounds. The ceremonies honoring the fallen have become events drawing Americans together for a common purpose and create places of healing for countless veterans, some of whom as guest speakers revealed thoughts not spoken of for decades, even to their spouses.
The memorial was built entirely via private donations and is maintained by the Veterans Memorial Foundation and a host of local volunteers, including many youth groups. More than 30,000 people have visited the memorial since its dedication in November 2008, and it was subsequently designated as the official SLO County Veterans Memorial by the Board of Supervisors.
As a council member, Beraud declined to attend the memorial dedication in 2008 even though all other City Council members attended. She declined four additional invitations to attend Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies while a sitting member of the City Council. She didn't attend any ceremonies honoring fallen veterans for the next 10 years until her political allies brought her to the 2019 Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, prominently seating her in the reserved VIP sections to be seen once she had declared her intent to run for the 5th District supervisor seat.
As for her claims of "intimidation," I suggest she take to heart the advice of former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harmon: "Anyone who wants to run for office has to be able to take a punch and own their past." Δ
Al Fonzi had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Respond in a letter to the editor emailed to email@example.com.