Holley school acknowledges removing campaign signs was a mistake
District says candidates had never put signs on school property before
MURRAY – Holley school officials acknowledged the district was wrong last Thursday to take down election signs that had been placed on school property.
The signs were removed from in front of the Holley Junior-Senior High School, which served as Murray’s polling place from noon to 9 p.m.
The district had the signs put back up after a State Supreme Court justice said the signs were allowed. Joe Sidonio and his attorney, Peter Reese, filed an injunction after the signs were taken down. Tracy Bannister, a judge in Erie County, ordered the signs to be put back at about 2 p.m.
Sidonio lost the Primary on Thursday to Neil Valentine, 244-220. Valentine has the Republican line in November for a one-year term on the Murray Town Board.
“This institution influenced the outcome of a free election,” Sidonio said at Monday’s Holley Board of Education meeting. “The effects will never be known.”
Sidonio and eight other candidates also had signs for positions of the Murray Republican Committee. Sidonio and three others in that group – Kerri Neale, Dirk Lammes Jr. and Kellie Gregoire – were elected to the committee.
Five others – Cynthia Piedimonte, Gerald Ramsey, Anthony Peone, Arthur Knab and Joseph Kellenberger – also had campaign signs on school property and weren’t elected.
Removing the signs hurt the candidates’ chances for election, Sidonio told the Holley Board of Education.
“These nine people were injured when this institution violated their Constitutional civil right to free speech,” Sidonio said at the meeting. “Those nine people simply placed their names on small signs for people to see. There was nothing defamatory about them. They simply expressed their desire to do a better job for the community.”
Holley school officials said after the meeting on Monday that they had never seen candidate signs on school property and were caught off guard to see so many not far from the entrance of the school.
Jeff Martin, the school attorney, acknowledged after Monday’s Board of Education meeting the district made a mistake by removing them.
No political signs are allowed within 100 feet of a polling place. Sidonio and the eight other Republican Committee candidates had signs near the school facing Lynch Road, outside the 100-foot limit.
Brian Bartalo, school district superintendent, notified Sidonio at about noon on Thursday during the primary that the signs were removed.
Sidonio asked the Board and school officials to investigate why the signs were removed. Sidonio said he and his election law attorney, Peter Reese of Buffalo, gave the district repeated warnings that the signs were legal. Martin said the district didn’t know the signs were going on the school property until 11 a.m., an hour before the polls opened.
“Determine what happened and fix it,” Sidonio said at the BOE meeting. “Learn something and teach our children. Furthermore, the entire Board of Education should take a course in civics.”
After an executive session with the Board of Education on Monday, Martin said Sidonio’s suggestion is “under advisement” by the board.
Sidonio also acknowledged that political signs haven’t been the norm on school property, but he thinks it is beneficial for students to see active campaigns at the polling location and in the community.
“There is nothing disruptive about hard-fought elections,” he said. “They are a good thing and in the highest traditions of what distinguishes America. No students will be harmed knowing that we have free speech and political contests.”
Sidonio this morning said he and the other candidates who had signs removed could take legal action. He wants to see how the school district responds.
“This is a huge learning experience for the whole community,” he said this morning. “Let’s learn from it and correct it. My campaign for change is bigger than a councilman race. My campaign is for better government and this (political signs on school property) is a big part of that.”