"Safety Hazard" Campaign Signs Removed; Council Says It Will Change Sign Laws After Election
Administrative officer says signs he feels could cause an accident will be taken down
The town council decided Thursday to stick to the status quo after a couple of removed campaign signs prompted a public discussion on the township’s sign ordinance.
The debate was sparked by the removal of mayoral candidate Bill Laforet’s campaign signs from the median on Macarthur Blvd., and differing interpretations of the ordinance that governs sign placement in the township.
According to the township’s administrative officer, Gary Montroy, Mahwah’s sign ordinance is broken up into three parts – permitted, exempt, and prohibited signs. His interpretation of the ordinance is that a “prohibited” designation overrules the other two classifications.
This means, he said, that certain signs need township permission to be put up, others are "exempt," and can be put up without permission, and certain sign placements are prohibited. Political signs are classified as "exempt," and signs in the public right-of-way are "prohibited."
“So, although political signs are exempt [from certain rules], all signs are prohibited from being in the public right-of-way.”
However, he admits that the law is “vague” and could be re-worked to be more specific.
“For now, this is how our attorney has interpreted it, so he’s the guy I am going to listen to,” Montroy said.
Montroy said he removed mayoral candidate Bill Laforet’s campaign sign from Macarthur Blvd. because it was on public land, and was of a size that he felt might endanger drivers in the area.
He says that although the ordinance has not traditionally been enforced regarding political signs in the area, traffic “hazards” are not allowed, no matter what they are.
Laforet’s sign was 7x10 feet, he said. “A regular sign is 1x2.”
Laforet, who says his signs are about four by six-and-a-half feet, argues that there is no size restriction in the sign ordinance, and that political signs have “never before been taken down from this spot. Why is it happening now?”
At Thursday night’s meeting, Councilwoman Lisa DiGiulio, who is running against Laforet and current Mayor John DaPuzzo for the town’s top job, suggested the council introduce a new ordinance, or amend the current one, to address the issue.
“None of us want to violate an ordinance,” she said.
Council President John Roth said that although he feels the ordinance is “poorly written,” the council should wait to change the rules until after the current election season is over, and the council agreed.
A committee was put in place to address the issue several months ago, however no progress has been made, Councilman John Spiech, who heads the committee, said.
Township Attorney John Conte warned the council against a written ordinance allowing for signs in the right-of-way, calling it a “liability issue,” should an accident occur in the area.
Montroy said the council asked him to allow signs that have “historically been permitted,” which would include smaller signs in the right-of-way. The administrative officer said he appreciates the guidance from the council because sign disputes are “relatively common,” and come up “almost every election season” in Mahwah.
“One year we had a candidate put signs all over Continental Soldiers Park, which is public land. That wasn’t allowed either, and we took those down too.”
According to Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli, the PD has not removed any political signs this campaign season.
"Obviously if the Police Department observed a sign that was, in our opinion, a safety hazard we would remove the sign, contact the owner and return the property. I don’t recall reviewing any reports in recent times indicating our officers acted in such a capacity," he said.
Batelli also said he does not ever remember removing signs from a public right-of-way during any other campaign season.
Montroy says that his goal in the sign ordinance enforcement is “not to hurt anybody, but just to treat everyone the same. If John DaPuzzo or Lisa DiGiulio puts a large sign in a location that would make it a safety hazard, I would take that down too,” he said.
Laforet says he will “not be putting the signs back up until I get some indication from the township that it is OK. I am not going to break the law.”