December 3, 2013

OUR OPINION: The Red Barn, and others, deserve applause, not harassment

The state should work with businesses that want to do important charity work.

Raising more than $600,000 for the community should bring applause, not a cease-and-desist letter from the state attorney general’s office.

But Laura Benedict, owner of The Red Barn restaurant in Augusta, has received both. Benedict found out the day before Thanksgiving, while preparing for a free holiday feast, that her restaurant’s charity work violates state law. Benedict posted the letter on Facebook, prompting an outpouring of support from the community, and an apology from the attorney general, Janet Mills.

It is clear that The Red Barn’s efforts — dinners featuring donated food and labor, with all the proceeds going to a worthy cause — do not violate the spirit of the state law, which Mills said target donation solicitors from out of state, many of whom keep a high percentage of the proceeds. Now it is time to figure out how to keep well-meaning businesses from breaking the letter of the law, either by changing the rules or offering state guidance in place of terse form letters.

It appears The Red Barn, after a few stressful days, will be able to continue its work. Mills has backed away from the letter from her office, which she said was sent by an assistant attorney general at the behest of the Office of Financial and Professional Regulation, which oversees the licensing of charitable organizations. Mills, correctly if a bit late, said the restaurant instead should have received a call offering guidance on how The Red Barn could comply with state law.

To Mills’ credit, she delivered that message to Benedict in person on Saturday, one of many overtures of support offered to the restaurant owner in the last few days. According to a post on its website, The Red Barn, with help from many of its friends, old and new, also is moving forward with a plan to establish a charitable arm.

But that can be a slow and onerous process that takes resources many small businesses don’t have.

“There are a lot of businesses out there that can’t afford to set something like that up,” said state Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, one of a group of local legislators reviewing the charitable organization laws following the raising of issues at The Red Barn. Businesses without the stature or support of The Red Barn may have folded once they received the letter, he said.

As Pouliot noted, lawmakers may not have time to address this issue in the coming session, which already has a full dance card of bills to review and budget questions to answer. But that doesn’t mean it should go away as soon as the buzz around The Red Barn dies down.

Maine communities take pride in neighbor helping neighbor. Benefit dinners, bottle drives, charity auctions, money-collecting cups on store counters and more keep programs and organizations alive and help out community members in times of need. Businesses that want to join in that effort should be supported, not harassed.

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