Banners, business, and God Bless America

Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY
Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY

I was a little surprised yesterday when I noticed that a story about a local cafe owner and her kerfuffle over a banner that reads “God Bless America” was trending on Facebook.

Jennifer Aquino is at odds with the Town of Penfield over a banner she hung on her Five Mile Cafe back in June. And if you believe everything you read on social media, the town was unpatriotic in its insistence that she remove the banner just as we readied to celebrate Independence Day. In fact, a Fox News story reported that Aquino asked for permission to hang the banner and was denied, so she hung it anyway.

Not true. She had permission to hang the banner. She just overstepped the parameters.

On purpose.

But let’s go back a bit and take a closer look. Why? Because I used to own a small business in a town that had seriously tight rules about signs and banners, and I suspected when I saw this story a couple of weeks ago that the back and forth between business and board was all about permits and regulations, and not about squashing patriotism.

And if there’s one thing I hate it’s when people cry about their rights being violated when, in fact, they’re just mad that they didn’t get their way.

Let’s start with the basics: When you open a business, and this is true in any community, there are certain regulations and rules that you have to follow. They include everything from having enough parking spaces to accommodate business, to the type of signage you can install, to whether or not you can have live music. It may involve permits from the state, the county, the health department, the state liquor authority, ASCAP. There are inspections and approvals and all sorts of government hoops you need to jump through before you open, and then continue to jump through as you do business.

It’s your responsibility as a business owner to acquaint yourself with those regulations, and by and large the town you’re operating in is usually eager to help you do that. It’s to their benefit, as well as yours, that you succeed.

That’s not to say that there aren’t times when you, the business owner, aren’t happy about the rules and want an exception to be made in your case. And fortunately, you have the ability to that, through applications for waivers or addressing your town board.

Fortunately in this case, the Penfield town’s board meetings are videotaped and Aquino shared it on her Facebook page, so we can get a better idea about what started this public kerfuffle.

Click to go to the Penfield Town Vimeo page and watch the video
Click to go to the Penfield Town Vimeo page and watch the video

In May, Aquino went before the board of the Town of Penfield, NY, asking for permission to put additional tables and chairs out on the lawn in the front of her cafe on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays throughout the summer to accommodate her growing business; she already has outdoor seating on another patio. She also wanted to hang a banner saying “God Bless America” to coincide with her annual Fourth of July event.

Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY, displaying flags and banner
Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY, displaying flags and banner

Businesses in the town of Penfield are allowed to have three banners a year, for a week at a time, and because Aquino had already used her limit for 2016 she needed to go before the town board to get what essentially amounts to a waiver for the fourth banner.

It’s one of those pesky things that happen in small government, when it would be easier for someone in the town office to just approve the request, but once you’ve already done A, B, and C, the rules say you need to have D approved by the next higher authority. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not personal, but it can be a pain in the rear.

The cafe is in a quaint building, next to a school and other small businesses. It’s small, but charming. And by all accounts, Aquino is a respectful business owner.  If you watch the video, over and over again the board members commend her for going through the permit process in the past, for complying with the rules, and for having a business that they think adds to the town in a positive way. The only reason she’s there this time is because she’s already used up her three banner limit.

And they’re not opposed to this additional banner request. Watching the video, it seems to me that it’s Aquino who tries to make the issue about her religion and patriotism and preferential treatment she says other business get regarding signs. (For the record, signs and banners are not the same thing and have different rules.) During close to 20 minutes of back and forth, it’s clear that she has a chip on her shoulder, interrupting, arguing, and raising issues not on the agenda. At one point she says that she has “a lot of issues” with the towns laws, and I think that speaks volumes about her intent at that meeting.

Quite frankly, if she hadn’t been so argumentative, she would have gotten what she wanted and been in and out of there in about five minutes.

But, as they say, you can’t fight City Hall, or at least change all of the town’s codes in a half hour, so the board finally gets the discussion back on track, and spends about one minute agreeing that they don’t have a problem approving her additional banner. They also approve the additional seating, but suggest she make sure it complies with her state liquor license.

At no time during the video did I get the sense that the town was not supportive of Aquino, her business, or what she wanted to do. Quite the contrary. They’re all on board, with one saying, “I think it’s a great idea, I support it, too.” They want her to succeed. They’re just doing their job.

So it’s over. She gets permission to hang the banner for the Fourth of July and put out more tables, and life goes on.

Or not. Here’s where things start to get a little sticky.

What the town didn’t do was give Aquino permission to put the banner up the day after the meeting, Memorial Day, and leave it up until the Fourth of July. That’s what she initially asked for and they said that was too long. They gave approval for the banner to be up for one week during the Fourth of July.

But in June, Aquino put it up anyway, a response, she claimed, to the Orlando shooting.

The town told her to take it down. She said no. And now it’s become an issue about patriotism instead of what it really is: a violation of the town code regarding the number of banners a business can have in a year.

Here’s the town’s response, for the record:

2016-07-01 – Town Board statement regarding “God Bless America” banner

The Penfield Town Board would like to clarify its position regarding the 5 Mile Café business owner’s use of a banner stating “God Bless America.”

Signs with ideological statements — including “God Bless America”— are, and have always been, permitted in the Town of Penfield.

Social media and other outlets have inaccurately disseminated misinformation about the Town’s position regarding the “God Bless America” banner.

The Penfield Town Board, in fact, approved the business owner’s request for a banner in conjunction with her annual Fourth of July celebration.

Issues between the Town of Penfield and the business owner have only been related to the “how and when” the physical banner could be used according to town code. The message “God Bless America” on the banner has never been, and is not, an issue.

The Penfield Town Board supports the message and the sentiment “God Bless America.” The Town of Penfield is a patriotic community with many long-standing traditions that support its heritage, veterans, and country.

Not what you’ve been told on social media, eh?

It’s all fine and good to take a stand on something you believe in, and if having a banner that violates the town code is important enough to Aquino to create such a fuss, then she’s free to disregard the law and face the consequences. This is America, after all.

But don’t throw the Town of Penfield under the bus for doing what they’re supposed to do: maintain the quality of life and uphold the regulations they set out for business owners. They didn’t do anything wrong; in fact, contrary to the news reports, I think they went out of their way to meet Aquino halfway in her requests. She got what she wanted (in part), and then decided not to abide by the decision (so she could do what she wanted to do in the first place), and then took her fight to social media (where no one reads beyond the headlines or checks the facts).

This isn’t about patriotism. It’s about playing by the rules you agreed to when you opened up shop.

That’s business in America, folks. God bless it.

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