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Former councilman wins settlement against Wildwood

Tony Salvatore says the $295,000 settlement he received from the city of Wildwood was a win for everybody, not just for him and he hopes it will send a message to other municipalities.

Salvatore sued the city in the U.S. District Court in St. Louis on March 26, 2019, for infringing on his First Amendment rights after he was told repeatedly, in 2018, that he could not carry a political sign on a public right-of-way. At the time, Salvatore was running for City Council Ward 2 against the then incumbent Ray Manton.

Tony Salvatore campaigning in 2018 (File photo)

While campaigning, Salvatore stood on public sidewalks at various times throughout the day wearing a sandwich board sign, talking to people and waving at drivers. On numerous occasions, he was approached by uniformed policemen and ordered to leave the area in compliance with a Wildwood ordinance that banned holding any signs on public property.

“It’s mind-boggling what they did,” Salvatore told West Newsmagazine in 2018. “I had at least six separate occasions [when] I was told by police to stop. They took away my First Amendment rights. They wouldn’t allow me to hold a sign up and wave at people. They never said anything about it being a violation, or that I was causing a traffic hazard or a sidewalk hazard.”

However, then city administrator Ryan Thomas said, in 2018, that the city did have an ordinance about signage within the right-of-way, specifically Chapter 415.440, Temporary Signs of the city’s Zoning Ordinance.

In July 2018, Salvatore submitted a modified request seeking the email and phone records of Thomas, Manton and Wildwood Mayor Jim Bowlin over an estimated two-month period. He was told the estimated cost to fulfill this request was upward of $3,000.

At the time, Thomas said the cost was related to the scope of Salvatore’s request.

“He [Salvatore] initially requested any documents related to his campaign signs, and we fulfilled that request and provided them with the emails and text messages that related to that,” Thomas said in 2018. “He believed there was more we weren’t providing, so he made a much broader request for every email on any subject over a three-plus month period, which would have resulted in as many as 10,000 records that we would have had to go through to compile, and in some case, redact closed matters such as personnel issues and anything that’s not releasable. It would take a lot of time to do that and that cost was estimated at about $4,000.”

Salvatore asked the state’s attorney general’s office to investigate his complaint. That body ultimately dismissed his complaint. That’s when Salvatore filed his federal court lawsuit alleging the city’s ordinance and its actions interfered with his First Amendment right to campaign. The suit named the city, Bowlin and Thomas as defendants.

“There is overwhelming evidence they were violating my First Amendment rights. Mayor Bowlin is an attorney; he should know better,” Salvatore said. “Hopefully Mayor Bowlin gets the message. (The lawsuit is) not just for me; I did it because I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

A bill that centered around “temporary signs” and displaying them on public property was proposed in 2019. 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 involve messages affixed to a person. Ultimately the measure was defeated by failing to secure the necessary nine votes to pass.

Tony Salvatore at a Wildwood City Council meeting in 2019. (File photo)

Salvatore filed his civil lawsuit just 15 days after the proposed ordinance changes were first presented to the city council.

The settlement, reached this month, will be covered by the city’s insurance company. The company made a financial decision to settle the case for what the expense of continuing the litigation would be – with no cost to the City, Mayor Bowlin said.

While Bowlin did not address the settlement directly, he said, “Our city attorney repeatedly recommended in early 2019 that we modify our sign ordinance that was last amended in 2006, to prevent the litigation.  Unfortunately, a few former council members vigorously opposed that.”

As part of the settlement, the city has agreed to have its employees take First Amendment and Sunshine Law training and post an affirmation of residents’ rights to free speech. That statement can be found in its entirety on the city’s website (cityofwildwood.com).

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