Published in Trumansburg Free Press August 11, 2004

Controversy Over Political Signs

by Bill Chaisson

The controversy over political signs accounted for most of the time and nearly all of the attendance at this past Monday's village board meeting.  When Mayor John Levine arrived on his bicycle at the village offices, the meeting room was filling up rapidly.  Three rows of nine chairs each had been set out and more than half were filled before 7 p.m.  Trustee Mary Bouchard was already present and Trustee John Hrubos entered immediately following the mayor.  Seeing the full room he remarked with irony, "We canít have this.  Citizens attending public meetings.  What next?"  Trustees Carl Potter and Janice Waller were not able to attend.

People continued to filter into the room and look for seats as the meeting was called to order and fiscal advisor David Allardyce began his presentation.  His company is offering to manage the financial aspects of four significant projects to improve the drinking water supply in the village.  Mr. Allardyce was aware that the crowd had not assembled to listen to his presentation and he promised to keep it brief.  He compared the financing of projects to getting a loan to build a house.  His company would consolidate the process to make it less expensive and also monitor state and federal programs for possible sources of grant money. The board agreed to consider his proposal.

By this time all of the chairs in the meeting room were filled and people were lined up along the back wall.  Over 35 people were in the room.  During a brief recess chairs were opened and offered to all who wished to sit.  Mayor Levine reconvened the meeting and presented a proposal to suspend for 100 days the enforcement of the portion of the ordinance related to political signs.  He explained that the board is a legislature not a court and it is not for them to decide whether the ordinance is enforceable.  Furthermore, the process of changing an ordinance takes two months.  His proposal to suspend enforcement was designed to delay discussion of the situation until after the national election in November.  He hoped that by then passions would not be running as high.

Trustee Hrubos initially disagreed with the proposal.  Trustee Brouchard agreed with the proposal and restated the free speech point of view: "I think that people should be able to put up whatever they want."  Trustee Hrubos interjected: "It's a maintenance issue; sign it, date it, youíre done."  He was referring to the little known and often forgotten directive to sign and date the posted placard every 30 days.

Mayor Levine, addressing Bruce Vann, supervisor of the Department of Public Works, asked if the signs 

had been a problem before the ordinance was put into effect ten years ago.  "Yes," said Vann, "Signs were left out after the elections and just blew around and the DPW had to deal with it."

The report from the Police Chief Tom Ferretti included no mention of the results of the public forum recently held to address over zealous enforcement of traffic and driver safety regulations.  Trustee Hrubos noted that "we now have the friendliest police force on the planet."  Mayor Levine summarized the issue: "It sounds like the problem has been dealt with."

The Main Street Project made a quiet, but significant advance when the board voted to transfer $75,000 from the general to the capital fund to finance the impending sidewalk construction along Main Street.  Revised designed sketches have been submitted to the state historical preservation officials and a positive response is hoped for by the end of August.  Tentative plans were made for a public meeting on September 18th to give residents a progress report on the Main Street Project. 

Many of the citizens assembled then began to complain about the nature of the letter they had received from Zoning Officer Doug Austic.  Amelia Stevens spoke for many when she stated "Any mention of being summoned to court frightens people." 

Mayor Levine attempted to smooth the waters by reading the actual ordinance, which asks that you "write [on the placard] your name, address, telephone number, date erected and sign it."  There were many objections.  Ms. Stevens objected to the invasion of privacy caused by public display of oneís phone number.  Several other people noted that there was no mention in the ordinance or in the letter received from Mr. Austic of signing and dating the placard every 30 days.  "The letter said the sign could only be up for 30 days.  Period," said Margot Alexander.  Alexander also stated that she had spoken with two constitutional lawyers and both had stated that the ordinance as written was unconstitutional.

Mayor Levine returned to the original proposal and declared that he wished to suspend enforcement because the ordinance was wordy and ambiguous, not because it was unconstitutional.  Trustee Hrubos insisted that any resolution should include a promise to change the ordinance before the end of the period of suspension.  He wished to avoid a recurrence of the present problem.  A resolution was then passed to suspend enforcement for 180 days and to rewrite the ordinance before it is re-instated.  Mayor Levine promised to schedule working sessions after Labor Day to invite the public to discuss revisions.

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Last revised:  May 11, 2005