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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 13, 2009

Nelligan claims double standard
Controversy erupts over early campaign signs

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — In the midst of an already contentious election — where the party majority of the town board hangs in the balance —the latest skirmish is over election signs.

But both Democrats and Republicans say substantive issues are more important in the fall election. The town board currently has three Democrats and two Republicans.

Guilderland has a town ordinance stipulating that political signs can only be placed three weeks before the election, primary or general, and must be taken down 96 hours after the election ends.

The Enterprise has heard from several residents who are concerned that campaign signs for Matthew Nelligan, a Republican making his first run for town board, have cropped up on lawns already. It is more than a month before the primary election, on Sept. 15, which Nelligan is not running in.

Kathy Lawlor writes in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, “You don’t impress me, Mr. Nelligan. If you don’t have respect for a town ordinance, how can anyone believe you will do what is right for the citizens of Guilderland?”

“To me, it’s a non-issue,” Nelligan said yesterday. “I think it’s more of the Democratic noise complaints,” if people have my signs up, it’s a show of support, and that scares them.”

The town’s zoning enforcement officer, Rodger Stone, told The Enterprise that he had heard about the Nelligan signs, and said, ideally, the signs would be taken down voluntarily. Otherwise, the enforcement would involve contacting the candidate and requesting that the signs be removed.

Nelligan said residents have been approaching him and requesting his signs, and, while he is aware of the town ordinance, he said he leaves things up to the discretion of the property owners.

According to Stone, the issue isn’t cut and dried, because of First Amendment freedom-of speech rights.

“The town can regulate size, location, and timing, but not content,” he said, meaning that, although Nelligan is not part of the primary election, he could still put up signs with his name on them — starting on Aug. 25.

Stone said he always checks with his superiors before taking action, and said he will be checking with Democratic Supervisor Kenneth Runion, for his advice.

“I don’t want to open up a can of worms and piss people off,” Stone said.

According to Runion, town committees have always been good about following the ordinance. The town has had zoning laws regulating political signs since the 1970s, he said.

In the past, Republicans have cried out if Democrats put up a political sign even one hour before midnight on the day before the three-week cut-off, said Runion.

“I was hoping that the signs that are up right now were a mistake, and that Nelligan wasn’t aware of the ordinance,” Runion said yesterday.

The issue is a familiar one in Guilderland. In the fall of 2007, in the midst of the last town elections, Runion told The Enterprise that a state Supreme Court decision handed down against Guilderland Democrats several years earlier cited freedom of speech in regards to political signs, and “overruled town codes.”

When Republican challengers put up signs that read, “Guilderland + Republicans = Good Government,” Democrats sued, but eventually lost in court.

The Association of Towns had advised in an October 2007 newsletter that local laws restricting political signs exclusively are usually found unconstitutional when challenged.

Double standard?

Nelligan called the sign issue part of a double standard, and said that, while he hasn’t heard from any zoning officials, he hopes that, if they do contact him, they will be consistent with their regulations.

He does have a sign up on his own lawn, and said he is not sure what his reaction would be if he were contacted by zoning officials; he would have to get the background information before making a decision, he said.

Lawn signs are an important part of political campaigns, Nelligan said, because they raise awareness of candidates’ names. If you are an incumbent, you have a natural advantage, according to Nelligan, because your name has been out there for at least two years. In addition to getting his name noticed, the signs list his website, giving people the chance to visit and see his platform.

The cost of the signs varies, depending on material, but Nelligan said he estimated spending anywhere from $1,600 to $2,000 on 500 signs.

Runion agreed that signs are an important part of campaigning, because they provide name recognition, and remind residents that the election is imminent. But, he said, he did not think that an extra two weeks of exposure would make much difference. Part of the literature of the ordinance states that the stipulated time period must be reasonable, and Runion said no one has ever complained that three weeks is not enough.

“I can tell you that the Democrats will not be putting up any signs before the regulated time period, and I won’t be putting signs up before the primary, since I’m not in it,” Runion said.

While the town has received some phone calls and e-mails about the premature signs, Runion said it hasn’t heard anybody demanding enforcement of the ordinance, which is something they usually look for. There are more important issues than chasing people down over signs, he said.

“I’m not going to have Mr. Stone go out and pull signs off of lawns, but I hope that people will respect their neighbors, and the town, and comply with the ordinance,” said Runion.

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