T   he notice in The York Dispatch a week or so ago, was short and sweet.

Three paragraphs to be precise.

"York City Mayor Kim Bracey has ordered flags at York City facilities to be low ered to half-staff in memory of former Mayor Betty Mar shall, who died on March 29.

"A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York, 925 S. George St.

"Flags will be lowered at city facilities from Friday afternoon until Monday morn ing."

It was a wonderful gesture. And if anyone deserves that kind of official recognition, I'd say former Mayor Marshall would be one. For a whole lot of reasons.

But right away, being the contrarian pain in the neck I am, I questioned Mayor Bracey's authority to make that call.

Yet I wasn't sure.

So I asked a couple of other well-seasoned people in the newsroom what they thought. And to be honest, they didn't know, either.

When it was all said and done, I couldn't find a single person in our newsroom who knew with any certainty the protocol when it comes to lowering flags to half-staff.

We all pretty much agreed it could be done when longtime government officials or someone in the military died or was killed. And that was a call the President of the United States or the governor of a state could make.

But none of us were too sure about mayors, county officials or lesser municipal officials having the authority to lower flags to half-staff for any reason.

I even wondered about lowering the flag to half-staff a full week after someone had died, though someone suggested that might have been done in connection with the memorial service that Sunday.

And he was probably right about that.

But I still wasn't sure it was done strictly according to the flag code.

Then to confuse the matter all the more in my mind, I received a single telephone call from a veteran -- a World War II veteran, to be specific -- who thought it was his duty to set the matter straight. And he got right to the point: "She (Mayor Bracey) can't do that. It's not legal."

And that was it. End of conversation.

The caller seemed very sure of himself.

But like I said, I wasn't sure if he was correct or not.

I do recall times in past years when flags were lowered to half-staff in recognition of a local person who died, and I often wondered if it was the proper thing to do. But I never looked it up.

This time I did.

I went to the Betsy Ross homepage, figuring anything related to the American flag would be accurately dealt with there . And I went directly to the "Flag Rules and Regulations" section.

Right away I saw there are five days of the year when the American flag should be flown half-staff, from sunrise to sunset, except for Memorial Day when it should be flown at half-staff from sunrise to noon.

They are: May 15 (Peace Officers Memorial Day), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), Sept. 11 (Patriot Day), Sunday of Fire Prevention Week (usually the week in which Oct. 9 falls) and Dec. 7 (National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.)

It's automatic on those days. No presidential or gubernatorial order required.

Otherwise, flying the flag at half-staff requires a presidential proclamation or an order by the governor of a state.

As a backup, I went to the U.S. Flag Code for confirmation: Section 7m authorizes a president or a governor to half-staff the U.S. flag upon the death of a present or former high-ranking official of the federal government or state, or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from that state who dies while serving on active duty.

It was wrong, therefore, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered all American and state flags to be lowered to half-staff when entertainer Whitney Houston passed away last year.

He did the same thing for Clarence Clemons, the sax player for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.

Wrong on both counts.

In January, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett ordered the state flag to half-staff for three days when former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno passed away.

Wrong again, according to the Betsy Ross website.

For future reference, only the president of the United States, a governor, and the mayor of the District of Columbia can order the U.S. flag lowered to half-staff.

And even then only for a very short list of elected officials, military personnel, high-ranking government figures and certain foreign dignitaries. And then for a specified period of time, which varies -- lower the flag, for example, the day of a death and the next day for a member of Congress.

So despite her best intentions, Mayor Bracey was incorrect to order the American flag to half-staff on York City government buildings last week.

She simply does not have that power.

And for future reference, the same can be said for county commissioners and all municipal officials.

So saith the flag code.

And now we all know.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.