NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Department of Public Works was “weaponized” to conduct raids on campaign signs, Isabelle Hargrove said last week, calling it an “act of political arrogance.”
Former Republican Town Committee Chairman Pete Torrano said, in response to a NancyOnNorwalk inquiry, that he had “serious doubts” that Mayor Harry Rilling ordered the removal of opposition signage.
One week after this controversy came to light, some Republicans were still complaining that their signs were targeted for removal, with comments at last week’s Republican Town Committee meeting asserting that Democratic signs were taken only after the complaints became public. Republican candidates attending last week’s Common Council meeting made similar comments while talking amongst themselves.
Hargrove submitted a letter to the editor to NancyOnNorwalk.
“It is obvious this was a well-planned effort on part of someone in City Hall to get rid of our signs. The mayor’s office tried to blame the DPW enforcement officer for being overly aggressive, but he was only following instructions from his superiors,” Hargrove wrote.
Hargrove wrote that that the mayor’s office had “announced a new policy regarding placement of campaign lawn signs in Norwalk.” That statement was judged to be of questionable accuracy, causing a reluctance to publish the letter.
“After getting inquiries for clarification on why DWP was removing signs from both public spaces and private properties, Mayor Rilling responded on September 21st that he had just advised DWP to only remove signs on public property but to leave private properties alone as is usually done,” Hargrove wrote to NoN, explaining why she felt “new policy” was justified.
“When complaints rolled in, City Hall cited an obscure zoning rule that signs should not be placed within 10 feet of a city street, but that rule has never been applicable to temporary signage. The new policy says political signs can be placed anywhere on private property, but not on city or state property. This new policy is no different than what had been in place prior to this cycle,” Hargrove wrote in her letter to the editor.
“I didn’t announce a new policy,” Rilling said Tuesday, explaining that initially the Department of Public Works was noticing signs, and he told DPW Director Bruce Chimento to send out a notice to explain that signs would be removed.
In the 2015 election cycle, “Former Common Council member Dave McCarthy was calling all the Democratic candidates when they had a sign in a place that it shouldn’t be. We were running around and taking them down,” Rilling said.
Then Democrats would spot McCarthy signs and he’d get a phone call, Rilling said.
“It became this back and forth,” Rilling said. “… So, this time around, Bruce Chimento said ‘I’m going to send out a notice to all the candidates.’ I said, ‘OK, do that.’ Then they started taking out signs… When I found out that they were going beyond what they really needed to do, I said, ‘look, enforce the ordinance the way it is supposed to be enforced. You can’t take a sign off private property,’ and he understood that.”
McCarthy did not reply to an email from NancyOnNorwalk.
“As I recall, that was the dynamic in District E, with Mr. McCarthy driving the dialogue,” Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho said Tuesday in an email.
“I would be foolish – foolish – to order somebody to go pick signs and say ‘pick up the Republican signs,’” Rilling said. “I would be foolish to tell them ‘don’t pick up my signs.’”
Chimento said that DPW was enforcing city ordinance 21-18.
“No sign of any kind shall be erected, placed, maintained or displayed within the outside limits of any street or highway in the City of Norwalk,” the ordinance states, going on to list a series of exceptions.
“The outside limits of any street or highway” refers to the city’s right-of-way, Chimento said in an email.
“I don’t know of any policy coming out of the Mayor’s office concerning this. The signs that were collected included all signs not just campaign signs,” Chimento said.
City ordinances go on to state that, “No permit for a sign shall be issued until an application therefor on forms provided by the Traffic Authority shall have been submitted to the Authority and a fee of $5 paid; no fee shall be required if the applicant is any agency or department of the City of Norwalk.”
An ordinance states that signs shall have a blue background and be of a specific size.
“The outer edge of each sign shall be not less than one foot from the curb or outer edge of the footpath. Where there are no sidewalks or footpaths, the outer edge of the sign shall be not less than two feet from the edge of the paved or traveled portion of the street or highway,” an ordinance states.
Torrano served on the Traffic Authority for eight years and was an advisor to former Mayor Richard Moccia. NoN asked Torrano about the ordinances and the possibility that Rilling ordered opposition campaign signs to be removed.
“During my eight years on the traffic authority the issue of political lawn signs never came up,” Torrano wrote. “I believe that these ordinances pertain to business signage and the like and signs that would be considered permanent or fixed. Political signs, to the best of my knowledge are considered freedom of speech and do not fall under this ordinance. If they did then the part saying ‘no less than one foot from the curb’ would be counter to the 10 foot setback.”
He continued, “As for the mayor ordering the removal of opposition signage I have serious doubts about that. I don’t think he could ask city employees to do so without some of them balking at that order and speaking out.”
He later added, “The sign I put on the lawn on my previous house on Dry Hill was taken down along with other signs on neighbors lawns. That never happened before. But I still see lots of signs on Strawberry Hill for instance that seem more in violation than mine had been. It does appear to at least be arbitrary.”
Hargrove’s letter was titled, “Signs, signs everywhere, unless it’s my competitor.”
“The sign raid was arbitrary when it began. It targeted mostly Republican Common Council candidates and the unaffiliated mayoral candidate, Lisa Brinton. Actions against Democrat candidates took place only after complaints about the highly selective enforcement.
“Several DPW employees disclosed that the orders to remove the signs had come from City Hall. They were very quick to deny that Mayor Rilling had been personally involved. But this may only be for self-preservation. Regardless, the citizens of Norwalk deserve an apology from the Mayor. “He is the man in charge of his administration and all City departments.
“Some folks believe political signs are an eyesore and that their removal is not a big deal. But there are bigger issues at work here.
“It costs taxpayers money to enforce such a policy during normal working hours. In this instance, the entire department, including supervisors, had been mobilized to conduct the raid. … Norwalk has an easement over every property on a city street. The easement can be anywhere from three feet to 10 feet in width depending on the width of the city street. Many folks that we talked felt that city employees were trespassing on their property. Several Republican candidates alerted me that DPW employees were taking legally placed signs on private property.
“We live in a participatory democracy. Folks who allow candidates to place signs in their yard are doing so because they want to participate in the electoral process. They are exercising their right of free speech – to support a candidate of their choice. The City leaders summarily denied this right of free speech.
“Ironically, the City’s advertising to promote an upcoming open house at the DPW exhorts us to ‘follow the signs’ to Smith Street. I am sure placement of these signs will be on City and State property as well as private property inside and outside of right of ways. DPW needs to explain that advertising relative to other temporary signs placed to advertise charitable events, local businesses, lost animals, and tag sales.
“Nowhere in the City ordinances are temporary signs codified. This oversight should be rectified immediately after the election. I am sure the new ordinance committee of the Common Council and the new mayor will work hard to serve the people of Norwalk.”