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Removal of signs in favor of cutting size of board in Alden stirs debate

Tuesday night, supporters of the movement to downsize the Alden Town Board put up about 20 lawn signs, urging people to vote yes next week to trim the board from five to three members.

By Wednesday morning, the signs had disappeared.

One woman called the Erie County Sheriff's Office to report that someone had stolen the lawn signs.

Soon after that, downsizing advocates say, town Code Enforcement Officer Martin Dugan went from house to house, returning the signs he had taken while enforcing a local law that experts say is unconstitutional.

He also handed out letters notifying residents that if they want to put a sign on their lawn, they need to file an application for a temporary sign permit and pay a $20 fee for the right to display the sign for up to 30 days.

Town Supervisor Ron Smith said he had discussed the sign removal with Dugan before he went out to enforce the law.

"We had a discussion about the number of signs littering the landscape and the fact that there was no permit obtained," Smith said. "If a permit had been obtained, which is what the law requires, there'd be no issue."

Smith said Dugan took down every sign he found -- those related to the downsizing issue as well as other lawn signs -- and put each one next to the house or garage where he found it, along with an application for a temporary sign permit.

"There was no discrimination," the supervisor said. "The rule applies to everyone."

The town's actions have rankled downsizing advocates, who say they have hundreds more signs waiting to be put up in Alden.

"This is an attempt to remove our freedom of speech and stifle our voices," said Robert Wohlgemuth, who has been leading the charge in Alden.

"I spent four years in the United States Navy defending this country, and I will not pay anyone a fee to exercise my First Amendment rights," said Alden resident Eric Chaffee, who helped Wohlgemuth put up the signs Tuesday. "Ron Smith is entirely out of bounds for ordering this to be done. It is blatantly un-American."

The local American Civil Liberties Union agrees.

"The only permit a homeowner needs to put a political sign on their property, or any message for that matter, is the First Amendment," said John A. Curr III, executive director of the Western Regional Office of the New York affiliate of the ACLU.

"You can put a political sign up any time you want. That's what it means to be an American. Our right of free speech does not exist only for those who can afford application fees."

Each year, he said, the issue of lawn signs seems to crop up in one town or another. The courts have consistently ruled in favor of the property owners. Generally, once local officials are educated about the case law, they back off, he said.

Curr said anyone whose sign has been removed, or who has been asked to pay a permit fee, can contact him to get a copy of a letter to send to the town.

He said it's not OK to remove a sign from anyone's lawn. "If someone takes a sign from your lawn, that's a crime," he said.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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