Tom Gieryic of Gieryic’s Auto Service on Dawson Road stands next to an American flag he’s put in the right-of-way in the front of his business on Dawson Road. Gieryic says he’s been told by Albany Code Enforcement to remove the flag because it violates the city’s sign ordinance.
ALBANY, Ga. -- After a confrontation with an Albany Code Enforcement officer, businessman Tom Gieryic said he's convinced the time has come for American patriots to stand up for the nation's flag.
Gieryic, owner of Gieryic's Dawson Road Automotive Repair at 2401 Dawson Road, was initially cited by Albany Code Officer Ruth Lewis Friday for, among other offenses, having an "American flag on a plastic pole (on the) westside curb (of) Dawson."
Albany Code Enforcement Director Mike Tilson said Monday morning the citation had been changed to a warning.
Incensed Friday by what he said was Lewis's "nasty attitude," as well as her insistence that he remove "a flag that has flown in front of my business for more than 30 years," Gieryic has rekindled the passions of local business owners who insist the city's sign ordinance is anti-business.
"It takes a lot to make me mad, but I was boiling Friday," Gieryic said Monday. "That flag that has flown in front of my business for more than 30 years is more than a flag. It's a symbol of our country and all that it stands for. And the meaning goes a lot deeper for me. The flag we fly symbolizes my father, who was a 30-plus-year veteran of the U.S. Army.
"I was not rude to this lady, but I did tell her I did not intend to take the flag down. That's when she stomped out to her car, got out her little booklet and wrote me a ticket."
Gieryic called Albany City Commissioners Bob Langstaff and Roger Marietta, who relayed the businessman's concerns to City Manager James Taylor. After checking with the Code office, Taylor called Gieryic late Friday afternoon.
"I never got a call back from the Code Enforcement office, even though I left two messages and was assured that a supervisor would call me," Gieryic said. "I was happy to hear from Mr. Taylor, though. He assured me that he would look into the situation and told me that as a 23-year veteran of the United States Armed Forces the flag was important to him, too.
"He told me I should continue to display my flag at its current location, and when I asked him if I would receive daily fines for doing so, he assured me that that would not happen."
Taylor said Monday he did instruct Gieryic to leave his flag where it was for the time being, but the city manager said he was not overriding the authority of the Code officer.
"I told Mr. Gieryic not to change anything until we figured out what he can and can't do," Taylor said Monday. "At the end of the day, we want people to know that we're supportive of all businesses in Albany.
"There's a lot about this issue I don't know yet, but we're going to figure it out. We can't make rules just for one individual, but we try to support every citizen in this community."
Tilson said Monday that Lewis was correct in her assessment of Gieryic's code violations and added that the businessman's flag display is a "clear violation."
"The conversation that Officer Lewis and Mr. Gieryic had was inevitable," Tilson said. "It could have been made long before now or two months down the road, but the signs and displays at that business are among many, many violations by local businesses. Some of them don't understand the ordinance, and some just don't want to cooperate.
"This is a tough job, but (Lewis) was part of the initial sign ordinance task force, and she was one of two officers who went door-to-door to talk with business owners about the ordinance. She understands the commission's intent with this ordinance."
Gieryic said Lewis "ordered" him to throw away a cigarette when he first approached her at his business then abruptly stopped her explanation of his ordinance violations to take a personal phone call. She then wrote him a citation when he said he would "fight for that flag to stay where it was placed."
A technician at Gieryic's Automotive confirmed the owner's assessment that Lewis acted unprofessionally.
"She was very nasty, had a nasty attitude," technician Joey Coffey said. "I was standing close enough to see and hear everything that went on. I couldn't believe a city employee acted as she did."
Tilson, who said he preferred to speak for Lewis, offered a different perspective.
"He told you she had a nasty attitude; she says the same thing about him," the Code director said. "It certainly wouldn't be proper for me to speculate what might have happened because I wasn't there. Her position is that his flag is in the right of way, and the evidence I have gathered supports that position."
Tilson said Marietta and city Planning Commission officials have proposed a number of changes to the current city sign ordinance, and a meeting has been called for 2 p.m. Thursday to discuss those potential changes.
"We're holding off (on giving more citations and warnings) until this next round of possible changes," the Code director said. "Hopefully some of the concerns (of business owners) will be cleared up."
Marietta said Monday he hopes language in the ordinance can be clarified so that city officials aren't "harassing citizens."
"We're going to look at some problems with the ordinance as it exists, and hopefully we can put in some specific wording that makes it clearer," the city commissioner said. "Frankly, I hope we can add wording to the effect that 'flags are not signs.'
"Staff has been looking at making some needed changes to the ordinance since we revised it back in October. We need to look at issues like 'legal nonconforming signs,' but mostly we hope to clear up the language of the ordinance."
Gieryic, meanwhile, said that while he "doesn't have the money" to get into a prolonged fight over his flag placement, he thinks more business owners and citizens need to stand up for their right to display the American flag.
"Frankly, I think the city's law concerning the United States flag is a stupid one and should be changed," he said. "I believe in that 'Don't Tread on Me' slogan and believe every American should be allowed to fly his or her flag -- as long as it doesn't impede traffic or cause some kind of safety issue -- anywhere they want on American soil."