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Wildwood walks a fine line on free speech as it debates new sign regulations

The city of Wildwood is debating changes to its regulations on the display of signs and, in doing so, is treading carefully on a First Amendment issue. On Monday night, the council held a third and final reading on Bill No. 2456, a complex measure that would have amended one city ordnance while deleting portions of another. Ultimately the measure was defeated by failing to secure the necessary nine votes to pass.

Tony Salvatore speaking at the Wildwood City Council meeting on April 8, 2019. [City of Wildwood livestream]

One part of Bill No. 2456 centered around so-called “temporary signs” and displaying them on public property. The proposed changes would have prohibited any person from affixing signs for any purpose [personal, commercial or political] onto public property.

The other key component of the bill addressed “living signs” which involves messages affixed to a person. This type of advertisement is commonly used by some commercial businesses. It also can be used for political purposes and that’s where the rub seems to come.

During his 2018 campaign for a city council seat, former Wildwood council member Tony Salvatore was cited on multiple occasions by law enforcement for campaigning on public property. He claims the police were called for political reasons and not issues of public safety. He alleges that law enforcement intervened each time at the behest of his political opponents. Salvatore took video on his cellphone of one encounter with police and has shared it on social media.

Some have accused the city of trying to change current ordinances to create “political shelter” due to these past incidents.

“I think it’s completely inappropriate at this time to alter the law about signs,” Karen Sheeley said during the public comment portion of the April 8 meeting. Sheeley is a Wildwood resident and frequently outspoken critic of Mayor Jim Bowlin. “It’s not fair or just to change the law that is at the center of a legal issue for the city.”

According to a March 11 presentation made by Joe Vujnich, city’s acting co-administrator, the proposed changes to the sign ordinances were first considered by the Planning and Zoning Committee with consultation from John Young, the city attorney. At the time, some members of the council applauded the action while others questioned its validity.

“I’m very glad to see us get to this point,” council member Steve Taylor [Ward 4] said at the time. “If we have something violating the U.S. Constitution, it needs to be fixed.”

However, when fellow council member Don Bartoni [Ward 3] asked Young if the current city ordinances were in violation of the Constitution, Young refused to answer “for reasons I’m sure you’ll understand.”

“I can’t be in support of this because we are not in violation of anything right now,” Bartoni replied. “Because there is a possible threat hanging over us, we as a council are making adjustments.”

After the April 8 meeting, Bowlin expressed his disappointment with the outcome of the vote on the measure. He said Young’s role is “to protect the city from adverse legal consequences.”

“So I think the better action is to follow his advice and pass the ordinance,” Bowlin said.

Bowlin confirmed that is was possible the bill would come up again at a future council meeting. However, first, he wants to confer with Young and others before committing to bringing the measure back before the full council.

Salvatore filed his civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri on March 26, 2019, 15 days after the proposed ordinance changes were first presented to the city council. According to the complaint filed by his attorneys, Salvatore is seeking $150,000 in damages.

Salvatore has named Bowlin, council member Ray Manton [current Ward 2 councilmember and Salvatore’s former campaign opponent] and former City Administrator Ryan Thomas as defendants in addition to the city.

Bowlin asserted after the April 8 meeting that the changes offered to the city ordinances on signs were not related to the suit brought by Salvatore, but rather needed updates to current law.

“It’s unfortunate the suit was filed,” Bowlin said. “I wish things could have been worked out.”

According to documents posted on social media by Salvatore, the city had tried to settle the case [through Young] prior to the filing of the lawsuit in Federal court. However, no agreement was able to be reached.

“We actually asked them to change the ordinance so it coincides with the First Amendment of our Constitution,” Salvatore told KMOV on March 27, “and they failed to do so.”

As previously reported by West Newsmagazine, Salvatore also has filed a complaint with the Missouri attorney general’s office related to the same incident. Requests made to the attorney general’s Office for an update on that complaint were not returned by press time.

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