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St. Petersburg cites Maher Chevrolet for too many American flags, then retreats

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Published Apr. 4, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — For roughly two decades, Michael Maher has proudly flown 11 American flags over his Maher Chevrolet dealership, in plain red-white-and-blue view of the thousands who drive by every day on U.S. 19.

But the long arm of St. Petersburg code enforcement recently concluded that the flags violate the city's sign ordinance, which generally allows no more than three flags at any one site.

The city ordered the dealership to take down the extra flags and pay a $143 fine.

The 11 flags draw attention to Maher's business. But for Maher, 68, a Corvette-loving former GM employee who was able to buy his own dealership, they have a deeper meaning. He's proud of America and its opportunities. He even hands out booklets containing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. "I'm a pretty patriotic guy, that's all I can tell you."

He was stunned when he was asked to remove all but three of his flags.

"I'm very naive, but I couldn't imagine anyone would be talking about taking down the American flag," Maher said. "So put me in the naive category. It's just hard to believe."

Maher enlisted attorney Michael Siegel to help fight the fine and for his right to fly his American flags.

But he may not have to.

After hearing about the citation from the Tampa Bay Times, Mayor Bill Foster said Tuesday that he will suspend enforcement of the citation and has ordered officials to re-evaluate the city ordinance.

Foster has asked officials to see if the existing ordinance would allow someone with more property more leeway. For a larger business site such as a car lot, "they should have the right to fly more than three flags," Foster said.

Foster said it's possible that some changes to the ordinance might be drawn up and "I'll need to take it to council."

As Foster and attorney Siegel both noted, there is a key federal ruling on this issue that concerned another Chevrolet dealership just up the road. In that case, Clearwater accused Dimmit Chevrolet of violating its sign ordinance by flying 23 flags. In 1993, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Dimmitt, which was allowed to keep flying all its flags.

In that case, Clearwater allowed businesses up to two flags as long as the flags represented a "governmental unit." But that meant the city was regulating the content of flags, which violates freedom of speech, the federal courts said.

The St. Petersburg ordinance does not regulate the content of flags, but it does regulate the number.

St. Petersburg Assistant City Attorney Erica Smith said the city never intended to crack down on American flags. She said the city's sign ordinance prohibits more than three flags — no matter the message or design.

People can apply for a permit to receive an exemption, or even a variance to the sign ordinance, which in some cases could allow for more flags, she said. It's also possible for people to approach council members to suggest ordinance changes, she noted.

It's not exactly clear what led code enforcement to cite the dealership in December, or for that matter, how inspectors missed it for the past 20-odd years.

One theory, Siegel said, was that a new code enforcement officer wrote the citation. Foster and Smith said they didn't know what prompted it.