A statement by Hudson City Democratic Committee chair Victor Mendolia in today’s Register-Star, on the topic of Rick Scalera and political signage, is demonstrably untrue.
The City has a longstanding but patently unenforceable local ordinance on the books. That local law unconstitutionally attempts to limit the number of days before an election that political signs can be displayed. But courts have repeatedly struck down such laws (typically, on the basis that political and commercial speech cannot be treated differently).
Nevertheless, in the 2005 local election then-Police Commissioner Carmine Pierro—with the backing of then-Mayor Rick Scalera—attempted to have signs removed for certain candidates the pair did not support.
A June 24th, 2005 article in The Register-Star reported that
Some Democrats are jumping the gun on this year's political season, Mayor Richard Scalera told the Common Council Tuesday. Signs have been popping up around town endorsing Richard Tracy for mayor and Robert O'Brien for Common Council president. Scalera, who has endorsed Republican Daniel J. Grandinetti for mayor, said these are illegal because political signs are not supposed to go up before 40 days prior to the election.
At the meeting where this was first discussed, this writer pointed out the obvious unenforceability of the local law, citing specific cases around the country where similar statutes had been struck down. Again, from the Register-Star:
Democratic Committeeman Sam Pratt said this is an unconstitutional restriction, and he added that the law is contradictory because it completely prohibits campaign signs at any time in residential zones. …
“These laws are unconstitutional,” Pratt said Thursday. “Most thoughtful local governments have taken them off the books by now. It's an embarrassment to Hudson that we have such a law, because it's both unenforceable and illegal.”
Pratt referred to three municipalities in which 60-day time limits were struck down by courts: Antioch, Calif., Van, Ore. and Tacoma, Wash.; and one municipality in which a 45-day time limit was struck down, Prince George's County, Md.
In addition, Pratt said, in a case involving the city of San Diego, the U.S. Supreme Court found that commercial speech can't be favored over political speech — in other words, if residents can put realtors’ and electricians’ signs in their front yards, they can also put politicians’ signs there.” …
Pratt raised the issue of conflict of interest.
“If Police Commissioner Cappy Pierro, who's heavily involved in a campaign, makes any move on this, it would clearly be selective enforcement and an abuse of power," he said. Pratt said there were Bush and Kerry signs up months before the November 2004 election. ...
“If Dan Grandinetti, Rick Scalera and Cappy Pierro want to bully the people out of exercising their most fundamental American rights, and to abuse the police power and misuse the Hudson Police Department to intimidate citizens, they'll have the fight of their lives on their hands,” Pratt said. “I would fight it to the Supreme Court, because I know it's a winnable fight.”
Scalera, however, didn’t back down—at least, not until he was left with little other choice.
Instead, Scalera falsely claimed that the sign law was in the City Charter, then brazenly challenged residents to take the City to court if they didn’t like it. The then-Mayor thundered that people better be prepared to “be summoned, go before the judge and let him make the determination.”
However, citizens made enough of a stink that by the end of June the City had received a stiff reminder from the New York Civil Liberties Union about the unconstitutionality of the Hudson law in question—and making it plain that they would be prepared to assist anyone wrongly charged under it.
This writer received a call from then-Hudson Police chief Ellis Richardson, who gave his personal assurance that he had absolutely no intention of taking any action on the matter, despite the belligerent noises emanating from City Hall.
In a follow-up article on June 30th, 2005, Scalera blasted the communication, blunderingly attributing it to “the same ACLU that condones and agrees with the fact that flags can be burnt on American soil as an expression of freedom of speech.” (It was the NYCLU.)
Faced with Richardson’s position, and then-City Attorney Jack Connor temporizing about having to “look into” the matter before any citations could be issued, and a rare Register-Star editorial opposing their stance, Scalera and Pierro were forced to finally drop the matter like a hot potato, hoping it would not become an election liability. (Their preferred candidate lost the Mayoral race in November.)
In short, Scalera and his political faction were squarely on the wrong side of the sign fracas. If the ordinance was not enforced after that, it was due to citizens standing on their hind legs, and calling out the City for bullying.
Nevertheless, in this Wednesday’s Reg-Star, the paper reported a historical claim by Mendolia that “former Mayor Rick Scalera refused to enforce the law at all because he felt it was unconstitutional regarding freedom of speech.”
As seen above, Scalera didn’t “refuse” to enforce the law; he attempted to use it to remove opposition signs. And he did not “feel it was unconstitutional,” he scoffed at the NYCLU’s authoritative demonstration of its unconstituionality. (Note: Mendolia controversially endorsed Scalera in the 2009 election.)
At the time, The Register-Star “Our View” editorial opined:
We are in agreement with the New York Civil Liberties Union that Hudson's political sign ordinance violates the free speech provisions in both the state and federal constitutions.
In a letter written to city Legal Adviser Jack Connor, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Melanie Trimble wrote: “A political yard sign is a classic example of the core political speech that is at the heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to free expression. But, for the vast majority of the year, the [city] of Hudson has completely and inappropriately, foreclosed a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, Trimble noted that “the overwhelming majority of courts that have reviewed sign ordinances imposing durational limits for temporary political signs tied to a specific election date have found them to be unconstitutional.”
Yes, Hudson's ordinance should definitely be repealed.
That was more than 9 years and at least one Code Revision ago. Nevertheless, the Hudson Common Council still has not gotten around to repealing the law.