Another Year, Another Controversy Over Decal Design

Arlington Sun Gazette

Another Year, Another Controversy Over Decal Design
by SCOTT McCAFFREY, Staff Writer
(Created: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 1:53 PM EST)

Another year, another controversy over the county government’s vehicle decal.

As in previous years, it is an image with a military theme that has irked a few residents, who have called county Treasurer Frank O’Leary to complain about the design selected in a public vote for the 2008-09 decal.

O’Leary said he has received about five complaints since the decal’s design was unveiled in late January. The decal will begin appearing on county vehicles over the summer and, ultimately, will be affixed to about 155,000 vehicles.

The new design, created by Yorktown High School senior Writesh Maulik, was selected from among four finalist designs, which themselves had been picked by a panel of noted local residents, from among submissions by Arlington students.

Voting among the finalists was conducted through the county government Web site and the Sun Gazette, and attracted about 2,200 responses. Maulik’s design was unveiled at the Jan. 29 County Board meeting.

Among those who have complained is Josh Ruebner, a two-time County Board candidate of the Green Party, who on Feb. 23 asked the County Board to do something about the design. He called the image an “homage to militarism, materialism and racism.”

Board members said they didn’t intend to intervene. “The board really has no role,” County Board Chairman Walter Tejada said.

Board colleague Jay Fisette said the design won the competition, and residents should respect the results. “That’s what the community voted on,” he said.

Those who don’t like the design have two options, besides moving out of Arlington, O’Leary said: they can cut out any parts of the decal that offend them (the registration number on the decal must be retained) before affixing it to their windshields, or they can request a placard to be placed in the windshield in lieu of the decal.

O’Leary said complaints are nothing new, particularly when the design includes military themes, as it does frequently:

* The 2002-03 design featured the now-famous image of Arlington public-safety personnel unveiling a large American flag over the Pentagon in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Few images are more iconic, yet the selection of the photograph for the decal elicited some criticism for a supposed militaristic theme.

* Other designs in recent years have include the Tomb of the Unknowns, the U.S. Marine War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial) and the Air Force Memorial. All, along with the Pentagon, are located in Arlington.

Another design that aroused controversy was the student artwork depicting the Arlington House plantation, which was the home (through marriage) of Robert E. Lee, family members and a large number of slaves.

Lee and his family departed the plantation in 1861, ahead of federal troops who occupied it for the duration of the Civil War. The property was seized by the federal government – an action later ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court – and was used to form the nucleus of Arlington National Cemetery.

Maulik’s original design submission included a quote by Lee, which also raised a few objections. O’Leary said last week that the quote would be left off the decal, because the printer could not successfully reproduce the type, not because of criticism.

“I am not an art critic, not in the business of altering designs,” he said.

As for those who complained about the Lee quote, O’Leary suggested that county residents look around: Arlington House is featured on the county seal, students attend Washington-Lee High School and everyone drives on Lee Highway. In 1920, the General Assembly changed the name of “Alexandria County” to “Arlington County,” in part to honor Lee.

Lee’s presence in Arlington is an “historical reality,” O’Leary said.

For those who haven’t liked the designs of the decal in recent years, O’Leary has a request: sign up to serve on the committee that selects the four finalists each year.

“The more the merrier,” the treasurer said. “I’m all in favor of citizen involvement.”

The committee meets for about an hour over doughnuts and coffee each December. For information, contact the treasurer’s office.

There are no plans on changing the procedure for selecting the decal, and democracy will rule even if some are not happy with the result, O’Leary said. “If the citizens of Arlington County vote for the Eiffel Tower, they will get the Eiffel Tower,” he said.

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