2018-09-13 / Front Page

Dickinson has sign beef with town

Councilman says rules governing placards is unconstitutional

With the primaries complete, Democrats and Republicans have their nominees for November’s election, which invariably will bring an influx of campaign signs to front lawns from Beavertail to Conanicut Point.

This common practice of self-promotion, however, has turned ugly.

Republican Councilman Blake Dickinson, the three-time incumbent seeking re-election, is accusing the administration of “reckless behavior” by enforcing laws that have been deemed unconstitutional.

According to Dickinson, the First Amendment protects campaign signs from being treated differently than other signs. To check if the town adheres to that, Dickinson recently placed his campaign endorsements knowingly on public property alongside signs promoting solar power. While his signs were removed by the building official, the Solarize Jamestown signs were left standing.

“I did it to prove a point,” he said at the Sept. 4 town council meeting. “It’s nothing personal.”

The same day his signs were removed, which was about a week before the meeting, Town Administrator Andy Nota directed building official Chris Costa to send a memo to all candidates outlining the rules about campaign signs. According to Dickinson, that section of the town’s ordinance is unconstitutional. Peter Ruggiero, the town’s attorney, agreed with Dickinson’s opinion during the Sept. 4 meeting.

“You have a culture in Jamestown with signs that doesn’t conform with the ordinance,” Ruggiero said. “The ordinance that’s written is not being followed. If you enforce it, you’re going to have a lot of problems.”

Dickinson then criticized Nota for imposing a law he knew was unenforceable.

“I’m very concerned,” Dickinson said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. We’re responsible for this behavior. We were supposed to curtail this. It’s so unnecessary; that’s the most troubling thing.”

He also reprimanded Costa for removing the signs without consult- ing with Ruggiero.

“How can you conduct a legal review without asking the town solicitor?” he asked.

Kristine Trocki, the three-term council president who is not seeking re-election, took offense to the entrapment strategy utilized by Dickinson.

“You’re actually creating a problem by going out and putting private signs on public property,” she said.

When Dickinson said he had no options, Trocki rebuked that idea.

“You’re a town councilor,” she said. “You could put it on an agenda. We can talk about it like we do every other item in this town. Why stage this whole departmental disaster to create what you already know is a problem, then threaten to sue the town you’re serving?”

Nota agreed with Trocki. As chief of staff, he said it’s a bad precedent to have council members “testing” his employees.

“I would hope that we work in a community where a councilor would bring such matters to the dais,” Nota said.

Dickinson also accused someone of removing the Solarize Jamestown sign from the police station so the newspaper could take a photo of his campaign sign sitting alone. Police Chief Ed Mello, however, said he had no idea a story was in the works.

“It was shortly before (the photographer) arrived that I removed the Solarize Jamestown sign,” he said. “I have been moving that particular sign around the property.”

The Jamestown Press confirms the newspaper did not tell anybody a photo was planned.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in on the debate. Steven Brown, executive director, wrote, “While we recognize that the town has the right to regulate signs on its own property, we do not believe an ordinance can give town officials unbridled discretion in exercising that authority. However, that is precisely what this ordinance does. Such standardless discretion violates basic First Amendment principles that have been articulated by the courts for decades.”

According to the town’s zoning code, campaign signs are limited to 12 square feet. Also, signs connected to an event, including an election, cannot be displayed more than 120 days prior to the event. They must then be taken down within seven days following the event.

Because these restrictions are under a special category, Dickinson said they are unconstitutional because it singles out political signs, therefore limiting free speech. Brown’s memo reiterated this opinion.

Nota, however, cautioned the council that the ACLU’s opinions are not settled case law.

“Just because the ACLU says something, that doesn’t automatically make them correct in every matter,” he said. “We need to temper that.”

Nota said he has since spoken with Brown about the concerns.

“We are in agreement with the process to rectify the matter,” he said.

The town is in the midst of rewriting the entire ordinance, including the elimination of the section governing campaign signs. In the proposed ordinance, political endorsements will be under the generic heading that governs all other signs.

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