This post was updated June 5 to add comments by Fred Leute Jr.
After certain Residents First Party candidates got heated over issues involving their signs several weeks ago, acting Chief of Code Enforcement Fred Leute Jr. looks to set the record straight.
He was originally told by an official in the village that signs were not allowed on public property, which is correct according to Village Attorney Brian Egan, but he was also told that anything 3 feet from the curb is prohibited as an easement.
“They did not want me to take signs off easements,” he said, admitting it was a mistake not to ask another village official first.
The acting chief said he uses Tuesdays to do paperwork and other administration duties, and usually dresses in plain clothes to do that work. He also takes his personal vehicle to Village Hall on Tuesdays, as he said he doesn’t wish to waste taxpayer money using a public safety vehicle.
On his way to work he drives around the village interacting with homeless populations, but he also noticed several signs along his way that were on public property, and others on residential property right next to the road near St. Charles Hospital. Another sign was in front of The Steam Room seafood restaurant in the garden facing the road, which he originally thought was public property. He said once he learned it was not village property, he took that sign and replaced “in the same holes I took it.”
He added that he did not know where the signs removed in the residential section were precisely, and those signs were instead picked up by trustee candidate Tom Meehan, of the Residents First Party. Leute said the event became a big misunderstanding.
“There was no malice against LaValle,” he added.
Garant and Leute have confirmed signs are not being taken down from private property by village officials.
It’s a sign the Port Jeff mayoral and trustee race is heating up as signs, specifically political signs, lead to friction between candidates.
John Jay LaValle, who is running for mayor alongside trustee candidates Thomas Meehan and Tracy Stapleton, said he and Meehan received calls the morning of May 14 saying a black Ford SUV was traveling around the village taking political signs from people’s lawns.
Later, while at Village Hall, LaValle said he saw the SUV, a black Ford Escape, in the parking lot and learned it belonged to acting Chief of Code Enforcement Fred Leute.
“We’re pretty upset, we’re trying to play fair, and it really kind of bothered me.”
— Tom Meehan
“We find out he was driving his personal car, in civilian clothes, not his uniform, driving around on government time taking down his boss’s opponents signs,” LaValle said.
Brian Egan, the village attorney, said village code disallows residents to place signs on the right-of-ways of a public street or walkway. It also allows residents to put up political signs on their public property for 30 out of a 60-day period and can be placed anywhere on said private property.
Village Clerk Bob Juliano confirmed that signs may be placed anywhere on private property and that some of the signs should not have been taken.
In an interview, Leute said that two of the signs were on public property, but another few were on private land. He admitted to making the mistake in taking those signs, and code enforcement would no longer be enforcing political signage, instead referring them to the public works department.
Village Mayor Margot Garant said her campaign and LaValle’s received an email from Juliano May 6 about the need to keep signs from public property. She added code enforcement removed signs from both candidates and put notes on each one explaining why they were taken.
“Both of our signs were taken,” the mayor said. “I had a conversation with John [LaValle], and I said you got guys volunteering, I got guys volunteering. We both got guys who are overzealous — it’s going to happen … it’s about keeping the village from looking like a war zone right now.”
Meehan confirmed hearing about a number of signs taken down near where he lives, and had received calls that the car was a black Ford Escape. People calling him had reported a man picking up their signs and putting them into the back of the car.
“We’re pretty upset, we’re trying to play fair, and it really kind of bothered me,” Meehan said. “For him to take the signs … it takes a lot of brass. Him, in his private car, and I don’t know if he was working at the time and who directed him to do this.”
Though people involved did not agree on the number of signs, among them were a few Unity Party signs — the party featuring Garant, trustee Stan Loucks and trustee candidate Kathianne Snaden — and one or two additional school board candidate signs.
“Fred is the chief — he’s the chief all the time, 24/7.”
— Margot Garant
The signs were brought to Juliano, who later returned them to the residents.
Meehan said he was told the removed signs “were on right-of-ways, and two were too close to the road.”
“The courts have said political signage has wider protection than commercial signage,” Egan said.
LaValle took particular exception with Leute using his personal vehicle to remove the signs, instead of a code enforcement vehicle. Garant, meanwhile, said there was nothing necessarily wrong with how the acting chief did it. The acting chief said he uses his personal car on Tuesdays as he spends most of that particular day doing paperwork.
“Fred is the chief — he’s the chief all the time, 24/7,” the mayor said.
The mayoral candidate said he has reason to believe Leute acted under the current mayor’s orders to target his signs directly.
Meehan, Edna Louise Spear Elementary School principal, said he and his party had been efficient in removing signs from where they were not supposed to be, such as in right-of-ways. He added he has heard recent reports of people, not necessarily code enforcement, removing their signs from people’s lawns.
“I wasn’t looking for this kind of a fight, and I’m not saying I’m going to fight dirty,” Meehan said. “Just makes me even more sure I want to win this thing.”
Updated May 23 to correct name of trustee candidate to Kathianne Snaden.