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Display ban may be eased in Olean controversy

A 1995 Olean ordinance banning privately owned displays in city parks could be lifted until Jan. 15 to allow a controversial Nativity scene, holiday decorations and other items to remain on view while city leaders come up with a policy.

The Nativity scene was quietly authorized months ago by Mayor David J. Carucci and built by a group he calls "anonymous donors," whose identities he has vowed to protect.

The group solicited funds to pay for construction of a shed atop a wheeled wagon, with its plexiglass windows revealing a manger and large figurines representing the traditional birth of Jesus. It was placed in front of the Municipal Building about Nov. 3 without fanfare as a large display of lighted holiday decorations were being set up at Lincoln Park across the street.

The Nativity scene immediately generated objections from aldermen, who had not been informed of the anonymous group's plans, along with a public outcry that the display represents a city government endorsement of Christianity. Comments and appeals for its removal dominated Common Council meetings, but Carucci refused to remove or relocate the Nativity scene until Tuesday night.

During the City Operations Committee meeting, he asked the Council to temporarily lift the 1995 ordinance banning privately owned displays in city parks. Afterward he offered to move the Nativity scene to Lincoln Park if his proposal is passed by the Council in a future meeting.

Carucci's proposal was quickly passed out of the City Operations Committee on Tuesday night in a 4-1 vote. By Wednesday morning, the item had been placed on next Tuesday's Committee of the Whole agenda for further discussion.

"It's a temporary thing," said Council President Raymond L. Wangelin during Tuesday night's committee meeting, when he acted as chairman and called for a vote on the proposal.

He added that it will offer an opportunity for the Council to "sit back and breathe" while assessing the situation.

The proposal now on Tuesday's committee agenda says the city's Parks and Recreation Code prohibits "installation of all privately owned, unattended structures in the City Parks," with final wording of the legislation to be determined.

Ward 7 Alderman John Padlo opposed suspending the ban because it was not presented to him in writing, and stated he would prefer additional research and some criteria for future displays before making any changes.

"I was under the impression that this [1995 ordinance] dealt with religious symbols," Padlo said after City Attorney Dan DeRose provided some background on the ban.

DeRose said an amendment to the 1995 ordinance was tabled and the ban is limited to privately owned, unattended displays in parks. He described the ordinance as "senseless" and in need of a "crystal ball" for interpretation

If the law is suspended, it will also remove all questions that have arisen surrounding the downtown Santa Claus Lane decorations that are annually set up on the streets and in Lincoln Park by the Greater Olean Area Chamber of Commerce.

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