October 22, 2021

C’ville law enforcement of signs questioned

Cortland County Seal

After several Cortlandville residents complained Wednesday night about citations they received for political signs in their yards, Cortlandville’s town attorney said he has sought legal advice about the constitutionality of the ordinance.

Kathleen Fitzgerald of Katie Lane said she was issued a violation notice for an anti-Trump sign in her yard of her home threatening a fine of $200 each day.

Fitzgerald said she did research and learned the town does not have the authority to enact a law regulating the content of yard signs.

Town law prohibits political lawn signs except between 45 days before the last day of voting in an election and 14 days after one — or between Sept. 19 and Nov. 17. But it ruled that signs supporting President Donald Trump are permissible, with a permit.

Town residents have disagreed over whether signs supporting Trump are political in nature or expressions of support for the president, which would be permissible any time of year. The permits limit the signs to 2 square feet.

Fitzgerald accused the town of bias over her sign opposing the president, noting several yard signs backing President Donald Trump and Congressional candidate Claudia Tenney, both Republicans, had not met with violation notices.

“I believe there is a political bias” against Democrats, said Fitzgerald, who promised to challenge the Cortlandville law.

“I think your law doesn’t make sense,” added Peter Morse-Ackley, of McLean Road, who was cited for signs that read, “Please vote for Joe (Biden).”

He said he had consulted with the state and been told the town ordinance was not legal.

Town board members denied partisanship in enforcing the local law.

Town Attorney John DelVecchio said he and code enforcement officials respond to complaints about signs and look into whether there is a violation, not whether the law is constitutional.

“We do the best we can to enforce the code,” he said.

Douglas Withey, the lone Democrat on the board, also questioned the sign law enforcement.

“It appears it does trample our constitutional rights,” Withey said. “We are duty bound to make it right. It is not right.”

Withey suggested a moratorium on enforcement of the sign ordinance while the matter is reviewed.

A moratorium takes time to draft and enact, DelVecchio said, adding he consulted legal experts and was awaiting opinions on the sign ordinance within the month.

Political signs have become a particularly contentious issue in the town in the last year.

Cortlandville amended its sign ordinance in March after Republicans were upset that Democrats put up campaign lawn signs early. Democrats cited a loophole in the town law that was created when early voting came to New York last year, as they posted signs 45 days before the first day of early voting, not election day. The town responded by revising its law to allow for signs to be posted 45 days before the last day of voting, rather than 45 days before “election day.”