A dispute between a Prairie Grove business owner and the village about its temporary sign ordinance has turned into a controversy over the American flag.
Gianelli’s manager Terry Trobiani said the village unfairly ticketed the restaurant for having American flags outside of the establishment. But village officials said the issue is Trobiani’s placement of the flags on the Route 176 right-of-way, not the flag itself.
The dispute led to protests July 17 and Thursday, organized by McHenry County Republican Party Secretary Karen Tirio, who heard about the situation from a Facebook friend.
“To me, (the flag is) honoring your veterans and all the people who fought for the very right to fly our flag,” Tirio said.
But the version of events Trobiani has publicized is a distorted version of what happened, the village said in an almost three-page news release published to its website.
“Trobiani has misled both the press and the public into thinking that the village of Prairie Grove cited him simply for flying a U.S. flag, when in fact manager Trobiani’s actions were very clearly intended to taunt the village and stoke a fire under the guise of civil liberties,” the village statement reads.
A ban on temporary signs
Trobiani has been fighting the village’s temporary sign ordinance — which prohibits high visibility signage, including A-frames, banners and feather flags — for years, criticizing it as unfriendly to business.
“The village of Prairie Grove is a predominantly residential community with high aesthetic standards, including reasonable regulations of temporary signage,” the village said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the village lifted its temporary sign ban as a way of helping businesses, but it quickly reinstated the rule after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced at the beginning of June that Illinois would move to Phase 5 of its reopening plan, meaning an end to most COVID-19 restrictions.
Village President David Underwood signed an executive order June 8 rescinding the suspension of the temporary sign ban, something he said was always the plan.
As a business, Gianelli’s needs time to recover after the pandemic, especially as customers still are unsure about whether they can eat indoors despite the state being reopened, Trobiani said. A sign could help Gianelli’s, 3111 Route 176, advertise its indoor dining, he said.
“Where’s our recovery period? Do (you) not allow businesses a time to recover? Is it like a water spigot? OK, business off, business on?” Trobiani said in an interview.
Emails were sent and phone calls were made to Gianelli’s letting its owners know about the return of the prohibition of temporary signage, Underwood said.
“They were definitely aware,” he said. “The village has had years and years of compliance issues in regards to signage issue at Gianelli’s.”
Businesses are allowed to display temporary signs if they get a variance from the village. To obtain one, business owners have to apply and then go before the village board during a meeting for its approval.
Trobiani said that after the temporary sign ban was put back into place, he decided to “be a little political” and ask the village for one 24-by-36-inch A-frame sign instead of the three signs he originally wanted as a compromise.
Trobiani said his plan was to put out the sign at the beginning of the day and bring it back inside when the restaurant closed.
His request to the village asked that the sign be allowed up the whole year, Village Administrator Mike Freese said, making it a permanent sign in the eyes of the village.
Trobiani said the board rejected his request after going into a closed session during a recent meeting.
Freese said the board went into executive session under the Illinois Open Meetings Act exemption for possible litigation because Trobiani threatened to sue.
“He keeps saying we went in there to vote, and we didn’t go in there to vote,” Freese said. “There was no vote taken.”
Underwood declined to comment on what was discussed behind closed doors, although he said the village administrator relayed the board’s unanimous thoughts regarding the requested sign variance to Trobiani.
Trobiani denied threatening to sue the village.
“What I said was, ‘This should go to court.’ But I’m smarter than that. Who’s going to win in court against a municipality?” he said. “I’m not going to waste my money on suing you.”
A fight over the flag
This month, the dispute between Trobiani and the village shifted to the American flags Trobiani put up in the grass in front of his business for the Fourth of July.
Trobiani had complied in part with the village’s requests by removing all temporary signs, but said he was going to “Walmart to buy more American flags to put in the ground,” according to the village’s news release.
Eventually, Gianelli’s was given two $100 tickets, one for the flags not being set back a minimum of 15 feet from the property line and another saying the flags must be on a permanent flagpole.
“Apparently, they don’t like the American flags,” Trobiani said, adding that he bought flag kits from Menard’s in order to display them.
Freese told Trobiani that flags in the right-of-way were prohibited both in type and placement on the highway and that they needed to come down or be moved to an allowed location, according to the village.
“The American flag is a symbol of our freedom, democracy and the liberties we hold dear,” the village said. “For that reason, the village upholds its high standards and requires all U.S. flags to be flown from permanent flagpoles or staffs.”
Rallies in support of Trobiani have been held in front of Gianelli’s on Route 176, with about 50 people attending the July 17 protest with about 18 hours’ notice.
During the rally, $200 was raised for Trobiani to pay off his tickets.
“It was great to see the community rally around a small-business owner who has had a very tough time this last year, as all small businesses have,” Tirio said.
Prairie Grove officials said Trobiani is twisting the narrative of what happened, and Underwood said village officials have been getting threatening emails.
“The village is vehemently supportive of all its businesses,” the village said. “It is disappointing and offensive that a business manager would present such a blatantly distorted version of the facts to the public, rallying others under a false pretense of a violation of freedom of speech and using the symbol of our democracy as a tool in a twisted ploy to further his own commercial interest in displaying temporary signage.”