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Suit accuses Boston of bias over lawn signs

In the Town of Boston, you can put signs on your front lawn opposing fracking and the SAFE Act, or supporting Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, and you won’t hear anything from town officials.

But if you erect a sign supporting the town clerk, you could find yourself summoned to court for violating the town’s sign ordinance and be required to pay $10 for a temporary sign permit.

Nearly a dozen supporters of Boston Town Clerk Jennifer A. Mule found themselves in that situation.

Boston Town Clerk Jennifer Mule

Boston Town Clerk Jennifer Mule

And that’s unconstitutional, several residents charge in a federal lawsuit filed against the town, Supervisor Martin Ballowe and Code Enforcement Officer William Ferguson.

They contend in their federal complaint that their constitutional rights are being violated and that the town is enforcing its sign ordinance in a discriminatory manner.

“In my view, pretty much any law that restricts political speech, including a sign, would be unconstitutional,” said their attorney, James Ostrowski.

It’s been an unruly year in the rural town in southern Erie County, a place with about 7,900 residents that's known for the scenic vista from its picturesque hills.

The board did not retain Mule’s deputy town clerks at the reorganization meeting in January, and instead hired two others as part-time clerks. Board Member Jay Boardway had said that the deputy clerks did not reapply for their jobs by a Dec. 9 deadline. Mule said in January there had never been specific deadlines and she had asked for their resumes by Dec. 14. She refused to work with the new hires, and appointed her own deputies.  State Police were called when Mule refused to allow the new clerks into the office, but troopers determined it was a civil matter.

The locks to the clerk’s office were changed, and Mule went to State Supreme Court and obtained a ruling from Justice John F. O’Donnell that she should keep the key to the vault and she and the town supervisor would have keys to the office. O’Donnell also ruled that only the clerk can appoint her deputies, but the town does not have to pay them. So they are not being paid.

As the tussle with the Town Board grew over the summer, more than a dozen residents erected “I support the Boston town clerk” signs.

Barbara Moore was among them. She put up a sign 4 feet long and 9 inches high at the end of her driveway. It’s next to her sign against fracking.

“Suddenly, a few of us got a letter which had the name of the code enforcement officer printed at the bottom, with no signature,” she said of letters sent to 16 property owners.

The letters stated the town required they pay a $10 fee for temporary signs. Some people were intimidated and removed their signs, she said. She and others appeared before Town Justice Kelly Vacco, who reserved decision on their motion to dismiss the charges.

“To me, this town clerk sign is not a temporary sign,” Moore said, adding she has had the “No fracking” sign posted for three years and never received a complaint.

Boston Town Hall in southern Erie County on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Boston Town Hall in southern Erie County on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Eight residents who were cited, and two others who have not been given a summons but fear they might, have filed a complaint in U.S. District Court. They believe the town’s action violated the First Amendment, which prohibits laws “abridging the freedom of speech,” and the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment.

There are 17 town residents who have signs posted supporting Donald Trump, 21 with Repeal the SAFE Act signs and at least four other homes with political signs, the complaint states. But a Freedom of Information Act request showed the town issued only four sign permits from June 21, 2015 through this month, and none were issued this year, according to court papers.

“That ‘No fracking’ sign is a statement of my opinion. I put up a sign ‘I support the Boston town clerk’ and I magically get a letter,” Moore said.

In addition to a ruling in their favor, the residents are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and court costs.

Supervisor Ballowe had no comment when asked about the complaint, citing the legal action, and the attorney for the town could not be reached to comment. Mule, the town clerk, said she has been advised by her attorney not to comment.



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