Stafford Campaign Sign Lawsuit Settlement Causes a Stir

By VICTORIA FORD | Mar 27, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

In response to concerns about Stafford Township’s $15,000 settlement of a lawsuit over a 2018 campaign sign, Mayor Greg Myhre summarized the circumstances surrounding the case for the public’s benefit at the March 19 council meeting.

He and his team of Stafford Conservatives had a “relatively large sign” (approximately 9 feet tall and 50 feet long) placed on a billboard on a licensed and insured flatbed trailer that was parked on private property on Route 72, with permission from the property owners, Ursula Yahn and Carol Johnson, who are the wives of William Hodgson and Surf City Mayor Francis Hodgson Sr., respectively.

“Hopefully everybody had a chance to admire it,” Myhre said.

The sign went up in October, was there for a few weeks and was removed on or about Oct. 30.

The town’s sign ordinance stated, “Political and personal opinion signs shall be permitted throughout the Township… (but) shall not exceed 16 square feet per side, 32 square feet total, and shall not be attached to trees or utility poles.” Myhre said other 2018 campaign signs also exceeded the size limits imposed by the ordinance. “The opposition party had a sign directly across the street, on a billboard just as large (as the Myhre team’s sign),” he added.

Code Enforcement Officer Karl Sillitoe issued two zoning violations on Oct. 16, one for the oversized sign and one for “storing commercial trailer on property.” He wrote four total summonses, two each to Yahn and Johnson, at which point the property owners could either pay the fine or contest the violations in court. They decided to litigate, on the grounds that Stafford’s sign ordinance was unconstitutional.

According to the plaintiffs’ attorney (and nephew) Francis Hodgson III, the total fine would have amounted to more than $1,000 per day the sign was in place, plus possible jail time. The matter was sent to the Monmouth County court system, because the property owners and their lawyer are related to Ocean County Chancery Court Judge Francis Hodgson Jr.

The Yahn civil matter was handled by Stafford Township’s conflict attorneys Micci J. Weiss and Bruce Padula from the law firm of Cleary, Giacobbe, Alfieri and Jacobs, who advised the town to settle rather than to fight it further and spend significantly more.

“I was not happy when I found out about having to pay any money at all,” Myhre said. “They took it to court, and they won. They found their rights were violated, and they used an attorney, and attorneys typically don’t come cheaply, so that’s where the money went.”

Indeed, Judge Katie Gummer found Stafford’s sign ordinance to be unconstitutional.

“The township zealously defended this matter and appeared for argument on the order to show cause before Judge Gummer in Monmouth County in opposition to the relief plaintiff requested,” Padula said. “In her decision on the application for a temporary injunction, Judge Gummer enjoined the township from prosecuting plaintiff under the summons issued against her.”

He continued, Gummer had cited the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015), in which the ordinance appeared to be “a content-based regulation of speech.” Ultimately, Gummer concluded that prosecuting the citizen would have “a chilling effect on free expression. Accordingly, the plaintiff has demonstrated irreparable harm.”

“As a result,” Padula explained, “rather than defend the ordinance, which the court had found unconstitutional, the township requested that the municipal court dismiss the summonses and settled the lawsuit alleging violation of plaintiff’s constitutional rights for $15,000. This was a reasonable settlement amount, considering the court’s determination that plaintiff was likely to succeed and to defend the matter further would incur legal fees significantly greater than $15,000 for the township and subject the township to paying Ms. Yahn’s legal fees as well.”

To approve the settlement by way of a council vote at the March 5 meeting – despite the apparent conflict of interest (i.e. the sign supported the current governing body in the 2018 election), and in the absence of any viable alternative – Stafford Township attorney Jean Cipriani had invoked the Doctrine of Necessity, which would allow Myhre and his council to vote.

Myhre said the governing body “will be adopting a new sign ordinance in the near future that will comply with the Supreme Court decision, and things like this can be avoided in the future.”

During the public comment portion of the March 19 meeting, Cedar Run Dock Road resident Susan Cummings, who had filed the original complaint against the sign on Oct. 15, urged the mayor and council to rectify the situation right away.

“This matter is urgent, because the 2020 presidential election is heating up,” she noted.

She described the settlement as “a terrible conflict of interest.” For the governing body to vote on a settlement over a sign that may have influenced the outcome of the election in their favor, she said, is “political chicanery – unethical, if not strictly illegal.” Many taxpayers, she said, may not appreciate being unwitting campaign contributors to the Conservatives.

Cummings took issue with the invocation of the Doctrine of Necessity, suggesting alternatives could have been explored.

For one, Cummings said, the council could voluntarily use Stafford Conservatives’ campaign funds to pay the legal settlement to Yahn. “This would relieve everyone, including Ms. Cipriani, of any public impression of wrongdoing and taxpayers the financial burden,” she said. “It might even win the Conservatives a few more votes in 2021.”

Another idea is the mayor and council could approach Yahn, who appears to be an enthusiastic supporter of Myhre and his team, and ask her to treat her settlement payment as a campaign contribution.

She called upon the town leaders to rescind resolution 2019-80 (which authorized the settlement payment) and to take financial responsibility. This “would erase public perception of impropriety and fulfill the legal codified intent of the Doctrine of Necessity, which is the preservation of the public trust,” she said.

Cipriani candidly admitted the invocation of the Doctrine of Necessity was an “extremely uncomfortable” scenario.

“The first thing that I want to do as township attorney is not to defend a sign that was for the people who just appointed me five minutes ago, which is why we got conflict counsel,” Cipriani explained.

Only the preliminary stage of the litigation had occurred, she said. If the township had not settled the matter, more fees would have been incurred. “Because it involved the expenditure of public funds, there were really only two ways: settle, or let it go and let the court order it. The amount would have been significantly greater.”

“The whole thing doesn’t feel good,” she added.

Nonetheless, Cipriani said, a public meeting is not the proper forum for the council to discuss Cummings’s suggested alternatives.

As Myhre pointed out, by operating without an administrator for the last three months, the township has saved more than the $15,000 cost of the settlement.

Still, former Councilwoman Joanne Sitek said the whole thing “just reeks of something not right. And the people of this town are paying for it.” Sitek said she struggled to see the connection between the size of the sign, which was the reason for the summons, and Yahn’s right to free speech.

“For purposes of liability, once the lawsuit is filed, the governing body that’s in power owns the actions of the prior administration,” Cipriani said. “They had to act, it had to be settled, the ordinance has to be changed, and that’s where we are.”

The Joint Insurance Fund will not cover the settlement cost, Cipriani explained in response to the question posed by former Councilwoman Sharon McKenna during public comment. JIF will cover damages, but not applications for injunctive relief. In this case the relief was from enforcement of the law; the money part was just “fees.”

victoria@thesandpaper.net

 

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.