(Ed.s Note: The following was sent to John Waltz, Commissioner of Public Works, Nassau County, and reprinted here at the writer's request.)
I understand that it was at your order that the Coalition for Port Washington Schools' banner was taken down from where it flew over Port Washington's Main Street. I further understand that this action was precipitated by someone's telephone call to your office complaining about the banner.
I tried to reach you this past Friday and was told that you were out; but a Mrs. Hoevermann, in your office, informed me that this action was taken because your department has jurisdiction over what banners may be put up over Main Street, and that the coalition's banner did not have a permit.
I then requested the permit numbers and dates of issuance for two other banners which were allowed to remain over Main Street one for HarborFest 2000 and one for a Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington celebration ¬ as well as for a third banner which had been over Main Street until quite recently, for a Dog Adoptathon.
I was told that those organizations had not requested permits, either, but that had they done so, their requests would have been granted because "they are not controversial," which is why they were allowed to remain.
This alleged permitting procedure of yours is news to me and to several other people I have spoken with who have had numerous banners put up over Main Street over the years. I would like to know the date when your office began this procedure of issuing permits for banners in Port Washington. If there is indeed such a procedure, do you have any plans to promulgate it to the general public? And are citizens everywhere else in Nassau County required to get these permits for all their banners, or just us?
As it was explained to me by your office, you don't actually issue a formal permit. Still, anyone who wants to put up a banner must apply to you, in writing, in Mineola. You might respond in a day, you might take longer. You might, apparently, never respond at all, as there is no set length of time by which your office must respond.
Even your office's permission, however, is not sufficient. Mrs. Hoevermann mentioned a number of other conditions that must be met; the banner must be 6 feet above the street; the applicant must also obtain permission from the owner of the pole; permission from the store owner; permission from the town or city; "and a few other things," which she did not further specify.
"The owner of the store" - for starters, that would mean at least two stores to contend with, one on either side of the street, and quite possibly more, as a pole could easily be between two stores, resulting in three or four business owners to whom to apply. And, even if one has located and obtained permission from all those business owners (which I think improbable; are owners always in their stores?) there are still the building owners to consider. I don't know how you even find that out, short of a day's research in Mineola.
"The city or town" ¬ in many places, there is one jurisdiction on one side of the street, and a different one on the other (e.g. Baxter Estates on just the north side of Main Street, for part of its run); that's two entities, at least...in addition to, now, Nassau County as well.
There is a point at which these procedures become unduly burdensome...a point which I believe has already been well exceeded by this list. Particularly if, as has already happened, they are to be selectively enforced.
Most importantly, I would like to know your criteria for what is "controversial." I would like to know the exact statute or ordinance by which you are empowered to decide. Is something "controversial" because someone who disagrees with it calls up to complain? Is it to be a popularity contest, decided on the number of calls pro and con? Do callers with lawyers count for more than just ordinary citizens? Or suppose nobody calls ... does a political appointee in Mineola still get to decide what flies over our Main Street?
Something that is controversial to you may not be to me, and vice versa. Suppose someone objects to HarborFest, or the Sons of Italy Lodge, or the Cancer Care's Red Stocking Revue, and calls to complain about their banners over Main Street? Do they, too, become "controversial?" Suppose I don't like dogs, and call to complain about the Adoptathon? Does their banner, too, then come down?
It is a sad day when educating children is considered "controversial." But it is also a sad day when our civil liberties can be held hostage to any crank with a phone.
Your Mrs. Hoevermann seemed to think this was a "simple" matter. But there are many besides myself who find it far from "simple." In an ever-more-complicated world, it is nice to know that Nassau County's Commissioner of Public Works does not hesitate to tread where the Supreme Court and Founding Fathers feared to go.
I look forward to your written response.
Judith Epstein Curtis