Clarence, Politics, and the Constitution

9 Aug

Metaphor

The Clarence Town Board is wading in very perilous constitutional waters.

Town resident Dan Snyder has routinely sought and received town permission to set off a fireworks display at his home on July 4th. A similar request for 2012 was recently before the town board.  Mr. Snyder is a very strong supporter of the town’s local volunteer fire districts, and based on what he believes to be Town Councilman Joseph Weiss’ poor support of them, has mounted a very public and visible campaign against Mr. Weiss this election season.  Among other things, Mr. Snyder has paid for paid political flyers to appear in the Clarence Bee, and has erected several anti-Weiss signs throughout Clarence:

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Here is the text of a press release that was sent on Snyder’s behalf on August 4th:

Two Clarence Town Board members don’t want Town resident and prominent businessman Daniel Snyder expressing his political views, especially in an election year in which one of them is trying to hold on to his council seat.

Last week the two councilmen, allies Peter DiCostanzo and Joseph Weiss, refused to grant Snyder’s entertainment company a permit to hold a patriotic Labor Day fireworks display on his own  property unless Snyder would agree to a political gag order.

The Town officials responsible for reviewing fireworks permit applications, Community Development Director James Callahan and Fire Chief Michael Rogowski both said Snyder met all the legal requirements for a permit.   And the Town Attorney, Steven Bengart, told the Board there was no legal reason to deny Snyder, who traditionally has held fireworks displays on other national holidays, including Independence Day.

Snyder has participated in this year’s political debate in Clarence by erecting signs on his properties and sponsoring newspaper ads critical of Weiss’ mean-spirited, intimidating style and his failure to support volunteer firemen, teachers and other public servants and residents.

When the Board considered Snyder’s long-pending permit request at its July 27 meeting,  DiCostanzo conditioned the permit on an agreement to ban all political signs.  When Snyder refused DiCostanzo and Weiss denied the permit–even though other council members cautioned that the illegal gag violates the U.S. Constitution.

But while the nay-saying Councilmen have silenced the fireworks for now, they may have ignited an explosive–and potentially expensive–constitutional crisis for the Town, and maybe for themselves personally.

Snyder has hired Buffalo First Amendment lawyer Joseph Finnerty to help resolve the situation.

“This is Clarence, New York, USA; not Communist China” said Snyder.  “Public officials can’t stifle political debate through threats, brow-beating and punishing tactics.  I’ve lived in Clarence a long time.  I support the community.  I just relocated my corporate headquarters here.  This just isn’t right.”

Finnerty said: “I’ve been defending the First Amendment as a lawyer for almost thirty years.  In all that time, I personally have not encountered locally such a blatant public attack on political speech as Board Members Weiss and DiCostanzo made last week.   Civil libertarians should be outraged.  The issue isn’t fireworks anymore (if it ever was); it’s freedom of speech.”

Finnerty and Snyder are right on this. The First Amendment is specifically designed to prevent the government from imposing prior restraint, chilling, or punishing political speech – which is accorded the most constitutional protection of any speech.  Yet here, DiCostanzo and Weiss have specifically refused to grant a lawfully sought permit because they are unhappy with Mr. Snyder’s opinion, and the way in which he voices it; they have unconstitutionally politicized a completely ministerial function of the town board.

The board minutes are attached below, and pages 168 – 170 memorialize the matter:

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Snyder is threatening a lawsuit, and followed up with this press release on Friday:

            The First Amendment lawyer representing Clarence resident Dan Snyder took another step late yesterday toward breaking the constitutional stalemate created by two Republican elected officials. Councilmen Peter DiCostanzo and Joseph Weiss refused to grant him a permit to hold a patriotic fireworks display unless he agreed to remove from his property election signs critical of Weiss’ performance in office.

Attorney Joseph Finnerty served Clarence Town Clerk Nancy C. Metzger with two Freedom of Information requests.  “We are using the principles of open government to expose just how utterly illegal their conduct has been,” said Finnerty.

Snyder has asked for records showing how the Town has treated other applicants for fireworks permits, as well as all documentation concerning how his own application was treated.  Town administrators charged with reviewing permit requests said Snyder’s should have been approved, and so did the Town’s Attorney.

“The public comments of Mr. DiCostanzo at last week’s board meeting are damning enough,” the attorney said.  “We believe the rest of the information we’ve requested will leave the perpetrators of this constitutional injustice exposed in the court of public opinion and without a place to hide in a court of law.”

DiCostanzo and Weiss told Snyder he could not entertain the Town with Labor Day fireworks until he stopped expressing his dissatisfaction with Weiss’ performance in office.

Weiss and DiCostanzo’s unconstitutional grandstanding may be related to the 2011 race for town supervisor. Incumbent Scott Bylewski, a lone Democrat in a Republican sea, is in an increasingly heated re-election campaign against a Republican opponent who is closely supported by Mssrs. Weiss and DiCostanzo, who voted against this fireworks request based on Mr. Snyder’s political speech. That’s bad government, and it’s dumb politics. But above that, Snyder’s team is right that this is a pretty blatant constitutional violation for petty political purposes. It reeks of political intimidation and violates the law, decency, and any notion of fair play.

What’s happening here is a concerted effort – Constitution be damned – by Weiss and DiCostanzo to paint Bylewski as somehow unethical. Bylewski’s opponent David Hartzell is already beating that drum with his own insert in the Clarence Bee.

A political ally of Bylewski’s filed a general objection to Republican supervisor candidate David Hartzell’s Conservative party petitions, and has submitted a bid to the town’s IDA to do some marketing work. Startlingly, sources tell me that Hartzell, as town IDA chairman Hartzell, said in an open meeting that the bidder could expect a “backlash” from the IDA; that the applicant would be rejected solely because he is a political supporter of Hartzell’s opponent.  (I have sent a FOIL to the town clerk to obtain a recording of that meeting’s proceedings.)

If true, there appears to be a growing pattern among town Republicans to threaten and exact retribution against political opponents, even if it violates the United States Constitution.

For their disregard for the Constitution, Weiss and DiCostanzo should be ashamed, and their re-election should be prevented.  To find out more, send your contact information to ClarenceBetterGov[at]Gmail.com.

7 Responses to “Clarence, Politics, and the Constitution”

  1. Ward August 9, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    I agree.
    I wonder if any comments on this thread will recognize the parallel between this and the (former) restrictions on political advertising when McCain-Feingold was in effect.

  2. Anthony August 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    It appears that some want to form a new “Old Boys” Club in Clarence.
    They already have the majority but want a monopoly to stifle any representative government. They want to rule and dictate what is made public. Just a decade ago the Town Board did whatever it wanted, belittled residents, and made sweetheart deals behind closed doors. Scott fought an uphill battle for open meetings and greater respect for dealing with taxpayer issues. Seems like some are looking to return to days of old when sprawl was in vogue and the residents were put in their place..

  3. Brian Wood August 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    Yes, Ward, our corporate “persons” are welcome to saturate the media with their anti-worker propaganda.

    And, as Ari Fleischer, W’s press secretary, said: “Americans should be careful what they say.” Take that, you liberals.

  4. Joe Genco August 10, 2011 at 8:30 am #

    The entire thing is fun debate, but as Snyder shoots at Weiss he should remember the old axiom: No publicity is bad publicity.

  5. John Roach August 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    Sounds like both sides are playing political hardball.

  6. Ward August 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    Yeah, Brian–those evil corporations–anti-worker, every single one of them. Why, they hardly account for any jobs at all.

    Good riddance to them. Especially that local company that wanted to expand their business and hire more workers, but had to go to Ohio to find some place to do it. Screw them. Better yet–tax the crap out of them. (Oh–that’s why the’re leaving? Really?)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Constitutional Coda « WNYMedia.net - August 11, 2011

    […] a coda to the “fireworks” portion of this story, the Clarence Town Board voted last night to approve Dan Snyder’s request to shoot off […]

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