The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Danville News

January 2, 2014

Property owner wins election sign fight

DANVILLE — A district judge found a Danville businessman and landlord innocent of having an oversized political sign because it was a different sign than he was cited for in May.

“The sign we are talking about on the hay wagon, the notice of violation was sent in May and the borough gave him until June 28 to comply and he removed the sign the end of May and was in compliance. It was a different sign in October with parts the same and others substantially different,” Montour County District Judge Marvin Shrawder ruled Tuesday following a hearing for Michael Kuziak.

“I think it requires another notice,” Shrawder said following the half-hour hearing about the sign, made of plywood sheets attached to a hay wagon, on property owned by Kuziak at Lower Mulberry and Mill streets.

If Kuziak would have been found guilty of exceeding the 24 square feet sign allowance on a vacant lot, he would have been subject to pay a $500 fine, court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees for Danville borough. Kuziak’s attorney Pat O’Connell estimated the fee for Attorney Kim Hill, who represented the borough, at more than $1,000.

During the hearing, O’Connell said citing Kuziak violated his First Amendment rights since wording on the sign urged people to vote for Bernie Swank for Danville Mayor and Tom Wickham for 3rd Ward borough councilman.

“I’m happy it went the way it did. This isn’t about the size of the sign. It’s what the sign said. If it would have said all incumbents are great and wonderful, I don’t think we would be here,” Kuziak said following the hearing.

After the hearing, Hill told borough officials the ruling could be appealed. “We have no enforcement powers if people keep putting up a different sign,” he said.

During the hearing, Hill said Kuziak a notice of violating the borough ordinance was mailed May 21. Before that, borough code administrator Jackie Hart mailed him a courtesy notice, Hill said. “He removes the sign and places the same sign with one panel removed,” Hill said. “Changing the sign in some way doesn’t mean you start the process all over again. Every time a person could put up an illegal sign and chip a corner off,” Hill said, adding “this goes against the spirit of the ordinance and the spirit of the law.”

O’Connell said the citation was issued a couple of weeks before the November general election. “They have to mail an enforcement notice by certified mail,” he said, asking Shrawder to throw out the citation. He said the borough ordinance mandates a sending an enforcement notice.

“They were trying to shut him and suppress his First Amendment rights. The borough was using the code office to try to influence the election and keep certain people out,” O’Connell said.

Hart said former councilman Collins Stump also had an oversized political sign in violation of the ordinance. She sent him a courtesy letter and the sign was removed the next day, she said.

Hart testified she sent Kuziak a courtesy letter May 14 to his Valley Township address. She said she sent him a formal notice of violation May 20 with him having the right to appeal before the zoning hearing board. In that letter, he was ordered to remove the sign by June 28. She said the sign was removed the last weekend in May or early June.

Wording on the sign in the spring urged people to vote for Wickham, Swank and Joel Harvey for 1st Ward councilman. Wickham defeated council member Betty Ann Moyer in the spring primary. Swank was elected mayor and John Rodman was elected to represent the 1st Ward in November.

When pressed by Kuziak’s attorney about who complained about the sign, Hart said Danville Business Alliance Executive Director Jim Wilson complained. She said she discussed the sign with council vice president Bill Rogers, who oversees the code office, and council members at various times.

Rogers, borough manager Shannon Berkey, assistant code administrator Bill Brady, Rodman, Moyer who is now borough council secretary, and Danville Police Chief Eric Gill attended the hearing.

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