Over the objections of citizens who urged them not to restrict their 1st Amendment Rights and to avoid expensive litigation, the Marlboro Township Council unanimously passed an ordinance that prohibits the placement of temporary political signs on public property and rights of way, limits the time before and after an election that signs may appear on private property and rights of way adjacent to private property, and regulates the size of signs and the distance they may appear from each other on private property.
At the request of Councilman Frank LaRocca, the ordinance was amended to eliminate the imposition of a 90 day jail sentence for violating the ordinance. Candidates, Committee Chairmen, Campaign Treasurers and private property owners now face fines ranging from $100 to $1250 if signs appear more than 45 days before an election, 7 days after an election or if signs promoting the same candidate are posted within 50 feet of each other on the same property. The total square footage of all political signs on any one tax lot must not exceed 16 square feet.
Matthew Rasmussen, an attorney representing the Marlboro Republican Committee told the council during the public hearing prior to the adoption of the ordinance that it contained numerous “constitutional infirmities, some of them fatal” and urged the governing body to defeat the ordinance in order to avoid expensive litigation that they would certainly lose.
Rasmussen sought to question members of the council, but was cut off by from doing so by Council President Scott Metzger and Township Attorney Louis Rainone. Rasmussen said that New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act allows members of the public to question council members during public hearings. Rainone said there is no such provision.
The most egregious constitutional infirmity imposed by the ordinance is that it prohibits political speech where governmental and commercial speech is permitted. The mayor, recreation department, public works department and other Township entities use temporary signs on public property and rights of way in a manner that the new ordinance prohibits for political signs. Likewise, commercial advertising is permitted with temporary signs on public property and rights of way. Rasmussen said, “You can’t favor commercial speech over political speech.”
Rasmussen said there is no evidence to support the preamble of the ordinance which states its purpose is to address clutter, obstructed views and traffic hazards.
The ordinance was been twice tabled before last nights adoption. Rasmussen said he was aware of a caucus the council held to discuss the provisions of the ordinance to address concerns of certain members of the council. He said such a proceeding, in which government policy instead of political concerns regarding temporary political signs were discussed is a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act and could lead to the ordinance being overturned and other sanctions against the council.
LaRocca denied the council met in caucus to discuss the ordinance. “That’s a serious infraction,” he said. Every other council member denied meeting in caucus to discuss the ordinance. However, Rasmussen said the minutes and a recording of a prior council meeting will show that LaRocca stated the Council met in caucus to discuss the ordinance.
Rasmussen noted the “chilling effect” of the 90 day jail term in the proposed ordinance as another serious constitutional infirmity. Jail time was eliminated from the ordinance prior to adoption.
Township Attorney Rainone was dismissive of Rasmussen and the other member of the public who spoke against the ordinance. “I listened to all the speakers and it is obvious not none of them read the ordinance,” Rainone said, “this ordinance does not ban political signs.” He noted that signs are permitted on the private property of over 13,000 homeowners and cited similar ordinances in the neighboring communities of Howell, Freehold Township and Old Bridge. In a jab at Rasmussen, a Howell resident, Rainone said, “I’m sorry he doesn’t know he is subject to a similar ordinance in his town.” Rainone noted news reports of a recent Congressional primary in Manhattan, “Charlie Rangel’s district”where there were six figure fines imposed upon campaigns for posting signs on public property. “New York is the birthplace of civil liberties”, he said, “they prohibit signs on public property.” Rainone also noted the absence of signs and billboards on the Garden State Parkway as evidence that the government has the right to restrict free speech. He likened political signs to shouting fire in a crowded theater.
Anthony Wilkinson, the GOP nominee for Congress in the 6th district which includes Marlboro spoke during the public hearing. He said he intended to post political signs throughout Marlboro during the fall general election campaign and asked the council to defeat the ordinance and not to violate his 1st Amendment Rights.
Christopher Dean, the Republican Chairman in Marlboro, cited numerous violations of the existing sign ordinance by the LaRocca who he noted is the Chairman of the Marlboro Democrats. He said the ordinance was designed, not to reduce clutter or enhance safety, but for the incumbent Democrats to give themselves a political advantage.
William Waple told the council the had done extensive research on the ordinance urged them to defeat it in order to save taxpayers money on litigation that would result in the ordinance being overturned. Waple complained out the commercial temporary signs that he said clutter the community and ask the council to ban them.
Danny Matarese recited Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, over the objections of Council President Metzger who instructed him to stay on topic. “I am on topic, you are trying to restrict my free speech. Are you going to have the police remove me?” Metzger said Matarese would be removed if he was rude, but relented in allowing him to go on with his dissertation on how the sign ordinance is part of the movement for the government to eliminate personal freedom.
Mayor Jon Hornik cited Monmouth County Public Works crews removing signs from county roads as an example of the government’s right to restrict political signs. He call the measure “a good ordinance” and urge the council to pass it.