Sign ban creates stir at Warren City Council meeting

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published April 12, 2019

 Warren resident Mary Reed Mataczynski questioned why she was told she was not permitted to display her “Fix Roads & Parks” sign during a budget presentation by Warren Mayor Jim Fouts April 9.

Warren resident Mary Reed Mataczynski questioned why she was told she was not permitted to display her “Fix Roads & Parks” sign during a budget presentation by Warren Mayor Jim Fouts April 9.

Photo by Brian Louwers

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WARREN — Call it “Signgate.”

If there was a rule prohibiting the display of signs in the Warren City Council’s chambers, it was news to the council’s members April 9.

During the portion of a Committee of the Whole meeting set aside for audience participation, resident Mary Reed Mataczynski said she “got a really big surprise” when she was denied the right to participate by holding a sign bearing the words “Fix Roads & Parks” while Mayor Jim Fouts addressed the council about his proposed 2019-20 budget. She said City Attorney Ethan Vinson later told her it was a “new policy.”

“There’s always been signs here. I’ve been coming here for 30 years or something. I’m shocked,” Mataczynski said. She later added, “This is a public building I helped pay for. My First Amendment rights, I’m pretty sure, were violated.”

Mataczynski pointed out that City Councilman Scott Stevens also had a sign urging drivers to look out for motorcycles displayed directly in front of his seat at the council table.

“Would it be OK tonight if I FOIA the request for the new policy, approved and voted on by our City Council, because three of the council members never heard of the policy, either? Mr. Stevens had his sign out,” Mataczynski said. “What’s going on, guys?”

That very question hung over the meeting when the council returned from a brief recess to hold its regular session. During the break, Stevens stated his intention to bring the matter up for discussion.

“By charter, council makes its own rules, like any legislative body. It’s not in our council rules of procedure and there is no ordinance,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t right. I see things on people’s bumper stickers that I don’t like all the time, but it’s their right.”

Stevens later asked Vinson to clarify the sign policy and how it was put in place.

“We received information that there would be demonstrators appearing tonight with signs and pickets, and it was determined administratively that they were free to do it outside of the building, but they couldn’t carry it into the building,” Vinson said.

Stevens added, “Again, council makes its own rules. This is a council meeting.”

Vinson replied, “That is correct, but this is a city building, and the city administratively can make rules regarding city buildings.”

“This sounds like despotism to me. Unbelievable,” Stevens said. “Did you ask the mayor if that was OK? Because it seems like the mayor runs this council.”

Fouts left the auditorium immediately after delivering a summary of his administration’s proposed budget and said April 10 that he did not order a ban on signs, nor was he opposed to a display of signs during the council meeting.

“I asked the city attorney today. He said he got some anonymous calls telling him something and he was concerned,” Fouts said. “He said he has no problem with the council if they want to have signs — that’s fine. I have no problem with it, either.”

Fouts said governments have “a right to ban all signs because it can become distracting to business at hand,” and that political literature is often prohibited from being distributed in municipal buildings.

“If they want to have it, fine. They can have all the signs they want,” Fouts said. “It may be a question of how far can you go.”

Council members appeared to agree that no prohibition on signs was requested, nor welcome in the future.  

“Public meetings and free speech are something we should all take very seriously,” Councilwoman Kelly Colegio said. “It’s just a resident expressing their free speech.”

Council President Cecil St. Pierre added, “I don’t think anyone here is against signs being here. It was not up to us in order to have that sign removed. It was the opinion by the city attorney, and whatever happened we had no knowledge of it, so we’re here to correct it,” St. Pierre said.

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