An ongoing controversy in town took a new turn Monday, when the U.S. flag flying in front of the Town Office was replaced with flags similar in design, but created to honor law enforcement officers and firefighters.

A number of residents took exception to the new flags, and the fact that they were flying in front of a public building, on the Facebook page Stockton Springs Talks. Some commenters noted that the flags have been adopted by white supremacist groups. There were also comments supporting the flags. The two emblems were the "Thin Blue Line" and "Thin Red Line" flags for police officers and firefighters, respectively. These resemble the American flag in black and white, with a single blue or red stripe just below the stars.

Mark Quigley, a 35-year resident of the town, called The Republican Journal about the matter. "People are upset," he said, adding that he didn't think the town should fly flags that "look like the American flag, but they aren't." He and others had emailed Town Manager Jennifer King to express their objections. He added that the flag flying in front of the Town Office should represent all the people, whereas the red and blue line flags "mean different things to different people." He said as of 5 p.m. Monday, the flags had been taken down.

King told The Journal Tuesday morning that the flags had been taken down in response to residents' complaints because there had been no intention to cause upset or offense. "It was simply just to support our first responders," she said.

The tempest comes after selectmen received three formal complaints at their Aug. 6 meeting regarding flags displayed on public property along Hersey Retreat Road. The meeting was streamed on Facebook Live, and can be viewed on the town's Facebook page.

The flags flying along the road include American flags and the blue line and red line flags According to King, they were purchased by a resident of the town who lives on Hersey Retreat Road and donated to the town.

Residents Karen MacDonald and Lorna Russell each sent separate complaints. Two couples — Lise Leigh and Gregory Biddinger and Jo and Calvin Swift — sent a joint complaint with several attachments, including their chronology of events on Hersey Retreat Road, as well copies of social media posts and articles about the history of the phrase "thin blue line" and the Thin Blue Line flag, supporting their contention that it has become associated with white supremacist groups. Among many other points, the letters noted that the blue line and red line flags had appeared shortly after the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

On reviewing the complaints, the three selectmen all said the "thin line" flags stood, in their minds, for support of first responders doing a difficult job. Peter Curley said the flags honored people for their service, adding, "I find the reasons that have been given (for objecting to the blue line and red line flags), I just don't agree with them."

Betsy Bradley pointed out that in the middle of the pandemic, first responders are taking extra risks for the benefit of the community, and said, "I think it's very fitting to recognize them." She also suggested that, when large gatherings are again possible, she would like to have a public barbecue to thank police, firefighters and others.

Melissa Moody said after hearing about the complaints, she had gone to see the flags for herself. With tears in her voice, she said, "I thought it was quite beautiful, myself. As a law enforcement spouse, it means that they respect you, and I see it as a symbol of hope that we can all move on and be together."

The board voted unanimously to leave the flags where they are. They also requested King to look into purchasing additional blue line and red line flags to be displayed elsewhere in town.

Contacted by phone Aug. 10, Lise Leigh said in response to the selectmen's action, "I really felt very unheard." She said she had not wanted the flags to be taken down, but merely moved to property owned by the person who had donated them to the town.

She said she objects to the blue and red line flags "because they've become associated with racial injustice," projecting an "us vs. them" mentality, when what is needed is for communities and their law enforcement agencies to come together and support each other.

Leigh said she believed the controversy was a misunderstanding in which there was no ill will, but a failure to understand that these symbols are "not the best way to honor" first responders. She expressed frustration at feeling that she and others who object to the display of the blue line and red line flags on public property have not been heard regarding their feelings about those flags and their associations.

Asked what further action the complainants might take, she said more residents would file formal complaints with the town. She added that she has written to State Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Waldo, to ask what other options may be available to the complainants.

King did not respond immediately to phone and email requests for comment.

In other business, the board voted to place about $40,000 of the proceeds from the sale of the former Stockton Springs Elementary School in the Stockton Springs Elementary School account, to replace money the town spent maintaining the building and grounds over the last year. The rest of the money from the sale, roughly $90,000, will go into the general fund.