John Habib: Keeping Croton Beautiful

JLH-photo-2Dear Neighbors:

Question: “Why did the Village Board recently amend local law §197-8, issued decades ago to restrict signs placed in public rights-of-way areas?” Answer: The Board was responding to residents’ complaints about the increase in commercial signs scattered across Village-maintained areas, and amended the law because legal counsel opined that the existing law was unenforceable due to its ambiguous, outdated language. The revisions to the law were necessary for Village residents to have the benefit of a clear, constitutionally compliant law to govern any future signage enforcement actions.

To Be Clear: Posting signs on PRIVATE property is governed by broad First Amendment free speech protections. The Village government supports that private right, provided the speech is within guidelines set forth by court cases interpreting the right (e.g., prohibitions against defamatory speech, calls for violent conduct, etc.). Any law restricting signage in public right-of-way areas must be content neutral or it would be unconstitutional. Consequently, the new Village law applies to all signs in public right-of-way areas, including election-related signs.

Allowing taxpayer-maintained right-of-way areas to promote a private business or a political candidate’s career is unwise. Such signs are not just eye-sores, but they can dangerously distract drivers. And in the Green Era we now live in, such signs are too often single use plastic junk items, inevitably headed to our overflowing landfills. Bans of such signs are being enforced now more than ever, not just by small towns and villages but even by states as well. (e.g.: https://www.wcax.com/content/news/Vermont-to-crack-down-on-illegal-sign-placement-508961681.html

This amendment has nothing to do with suppressing political signage on private property. As a person who has run for elected office, I have read many experts’ conclusions that political signs planted anywhere are embarrassingly ineffective tools for garnering votes (e.g.: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/29/sorry-campaign-managers-lawn-signs-are-only-98-3-percent-useless/). Candidates must devise modern, impactful, environmentally sensitive campaigns filled with door-knocking, attending public hearings, volunteering for key village government committees, phone-banking, e-mail/text messaging and standing outside of railroad stations with leaflets (later collected to recycle and avoid littering). I engaged in all of these activities in the 2019 election. I shall never plant another sign (political or commercial) on public property in my life.

We must be sensitive to some local non-profit groups’ concerns that events cannot be well-promoted in light of the new restriction. But charitable organizations can and should be high profile role models for eliminating wasteful, antiquated advertising on public property. Embracing face-to-face event communication strategies (such as those mentioned above) would be a great start. And given our digital era, free/low cost communication options abound, such as the savvy use of texting and e-mail campaign software applications. In addition, organizations are invited to contact the Village for potentially posting their events on the Village calendar: (https://www.crotononhudson-ny.gov/calendar/month/2020-02).

Maximizing communication to residents must be a top goal of all governments, and so this amendment will not be enforced over-night. Prior to issuing any citations, Village officials will do their best to raise awareness that the law now is in effect.

Let’s move together as a tightly connected community embracing new standards for communication – and let’s dump public right-of-way signage onto the trash heap of history.

John Habib, Trustee

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