WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor issued a judgment yesterday finding that Mayor Daniel M. Knapik violated the rights of plaintiffs David A. Flaherty, Jane Wensley and property owner David Costa, when he ordered political signs removed. Ponsor issued his amended order of judgment stating that “the removal of political lawn signs on November 7, 2011 by order of the Defendant Daniel Knapik constituted content-based, but not intentional, discrimination in violation of the rights of the Plaintiffs as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article XVI of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
“The parties have resolved all other outstanding issues in this case, including attorney’s fees. Any remaining claims offered in the complaint are hereby dismissed by agreement. “Judgment will enter for Plaintiffs to the extent set forth above. This case may now be closed.”
Flaherty in an electronic communication said that “The sign case is over. The court ruled that mayor violated our First Amendment Rights and awarded our lawyers Attorney Fees and Costs ($53,000).
The suit, filed by Attorneys William Newman and Luke Ryan of the American Civil Liberties Union in Northampton, charged that Knapik ordered the removal of Flaherty’s and Wensley’s political signs from the property owned by Costa on West Silver Street, between Cross Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, almost directly across the street from Knapik’s East Silver Street residence, violated the civil rights of the litigants.
City Solicitor Susan Phillips said last night that because Ponser found that Knapik acted unintentionally, he is still indemnified under MGL Chapter 258, Section 9. Phillips cited the last sentence of that law which stated that: “No such employee or official, other than a person holding office under the constitution acting within the scope of his official duties or employment, shall be indemnified under this section for violation of any such civil rights if he acted in a grossly negligent, willful or malicious manner.”
“It is my interpretation of the law that the city is obligated to pay this,” Phillips said. “I will treat it like any other judgement and use my judgement account to pay the attorney fees.”
Mayor Daniel M. Knapik released a prepared statement last night in which he addressed his decision to sign the agreement approved by Ponsor:
“Continuing this lawsuit is not in the best interests of the City of Westfield,” Knapik stated in the release.
“While I disagree with the result, I would rather accept responsibility for my actions than continue to fight this claim. In the long run, while the judgment may affect me and my reputation, I am more concerned about putting this lawsuit in the past and focusing on what is best to move the City of Westfield forward.”
“I have great respect for all First Amendment rights, and particularly the rights of any candidate to campaign, and the rights of any owner of private property to support any candidate they choose,” Knapik said.
“In no manner did I ever order anyone to enter private property to remove signs. However, the City of Westfield’s municipal Ordinances restrict the use of public property relative to signs in general, and to the tree belt in particular, and I reasonably believed at the time of ordering the removal of the signs that I had legitimate safety reasons and grounds for ordering their removal.”
“I made observations while responding to an email communication that I had received from a constituent that piles of debris were still left on the tree belt in that area as a result of the severe winter snow storm that had crippled the City, leaving it without electricity, for a week,” Knapik stated.
“I made the decision based on my observations and opinion that the signs were blocking the vision of people driving onto East Silver Street from Cross Street, and my opinion that “trick-o-treators” would be unsafe later that night as they walked in the area.”
Knapik contends that the order to remove the signs was a reasonable exercise of his authority in furtherance of legitimate concerns for public safety.
“I filed a complaint last night with the State Inspector General’s Office requesting immediate intervention to stop the city from using one penny of taxpayers’ funds on this,” said Flaherty this morning. “And I’m also asking for their help in recovering the $40,000 that was conditionally approved by the City Council for his defense efforts.”
“There are two very important clauses in the state law and the city ordinances that should disqualify the mayor from receiving indemnity,” he said. “First, he was not ‘acting within the scope of his official duties or employment’ and second, he acted ‘in a grossly negligent, willful or malicious manner’. These clauses both trump any claims about his ‘intent’.”
Media Credit: The Westfield News