Is a cardboard sign worth $70,000?

This shameful incident which took place in Bedford, NH in 2004 has to be the ultimate example official oppression by the arrogance of town officers, and a sure indication of local government gone out of control, as well as a demonstration of just how far the tax-and-spend crowd will go to violate their opponents’ freedom of speech.

Despite declining birth rates and enrollments and an excellent contract with Manchester West for a very reasonable tuition fee per child/per year, the push was on by a small minority of very influential residents to build a new and expensive high school in Bedford.

A taxpayer group who opposed the building of the school formed a local chapter of the nationally known group then known as “Citizens for a Sound Economy”.

Just before the March 2004 election to decide the school question, they placed the usual signs around town alongside of everyone else’s.

Simultaneously, another local chapter of the CSE was formed in Derry, NH. But their group was never able to accomplish much under that name as the national group soon was merged with a group of another name.

In the following article that still appears in the Salem Observer online, (then) town planner Karen White, (then) town manager Keith Hickey, and (then) town councilor/State Rep Michael Scanlon, apparently cooked up a scheme with other persons from the tax-and-spend school crowd to shut down the operations of the new Bedford CSE group. This was likely a reaction to the success of the intrepid group who managed to rake in enough donations to put up about 200 signs to oppose the school question.

What is most interesting is that the ultimate fine that was paid ($5,000) was paid BEFORE the Bedford CSE even knew the letter had arrived in their PO Box, and paid by persons unknown.

Orville “Bud” Fitch (Assistant to the SoS) was brought a copy of the sign, but said he could not rule that the signs were illegal (because he knew they were not and he made the same statement in a letter to town planner Karen White.)

Where are they now?

Keith Hickey got divorced and has now moved over to become Merrimack’s town manager, where he ‘lost’ $1.1M…

Michael Scanlon is no longer a town councilor. He was forced out by embarrassment, and did not run for State Rep again either, after proposing a failed bill that would have taken away Bedford homeowners’ rights to their own private wells through eminent domain insteading handing control of private wells over to the new regional water district. Water district…

Karen White has since retired. Water district…

Orville “Bud” Fitch is sadly still up at the Statehouse in Concord, presiding over frivolous complaints by liberals.

The Town of Bedford had never before, and has not since, ever fined anyone for a sign, even though many real ‘commercial’ signs dot the landscape along the roads at any given time of year — hawking cleaning services, wood chopping, AVON, dating services, farmers’ markets, junk removal, etc.

Meanwhile, both the Bedford and Derry CSE groups were given the choice to join FreedomWorks, as that is the name the national CSE group had decided to use during the time all this was going on. This was the sole reason BOTH the Bedford and Derry chapters were asked to pick up the new name. The fact that the Bedford CSE was invited to join FreedomWorks is proof that they were never ‘rebuked’ by the CSE as some had claimed.

(Note: FreedomWorks in fact praised them here, and even mentioned the deceptive website in the article, which was the one hacked by a school proponent – the same one who was taken to court for stalking one of the women in the group. When his name was revealed as the hacker, in an attempt to scare them for reporting the incident, Attorney for the ‘schoolies’ Chuck Grau sent a threatening letter about libeling the hacker, which was laughed at and ignored by the group. The website and domain was consequently turned over to the group, as the server’s legal counsel determined that it was illegal to attempt to impersonate another group in order to sway an election…)

And the Bedford CSE group never did find out who paid the $5,000 fine before receiving the letter accusing them of the ‘violation’ had even landed in their PO Box. They suspect no one did — and that this was merely a ruse to make them look as if they had committed some sort of crime.

If this sounded like a totally outrageous attempt to discredit their opponents with frivolous actions, it’s because it was.

In addition, in the time before the vote, B-CSE members had their property vandalized repeatedly, their website hacked, and one member was even publicly threatened with bodily harm. There were filed 22 police reports regarding these frequent incidents of harassment and intimidation.

Note in the article that was printed in the local papers, Scanlon bragged that they could have gotten away with fining the group $50-, $60-, or even $70,000.

Town fines CSE for its signs
Bedford Bulletin of March 25, 2004

The flurry of signs that lined the edge of roads in the weeks before the recent election are gone now, but one of the town’s political groups may have to pay a fine because of the signs it put up.

The Bedford chapter of the Citizens for a Sound Economy (B-CSE) was slapped with a $10,725 fine after the town determined some of its signs did not qualify as political signs.

The sign in question read, “Questions? Bedford Politics! Taxpayer Radio 90.7 FM Thursdays 6-8 PM”. The sign also included the address of the group’s website.

Town Planner Karen White sent the group a warning on Feb. 20 advising that the signs were not political speech and must be removed by March 1. On March 4, the town collected a total of 13 signs and issued a fine of $275 per day for each sign.

Chuck McGee, state director of the CSE and spokesman for the local chapter, said the matter would be pursued but the group had higher priorities at the moment.

“We’re going to do what we can do legally, but that’s not our focus right now,” he said. “Our focus is getting a special election.”

Michelle Corcoran, Bedford resident and president of the local chapter, questioned White’s ruling that the signs were not political signs.

“The matter is being researched legally, and we’re not going to have comments at this time,” she said.

White said there is a very specific definition under state laws of what political signs are. 

“The definition of political advertising in the state statutes says that the advertising has to advocate the success or defeat of any party, measure or person in an upcoming election,” she said. “If you notice, these signs do not do that. They in fact, appear to be advertising for a radio station.”

White said because the signs are not considered political messages, which are regulated by the state, they fall under the town’s regulation. Without any political message on the sign, she said they qualify as “off-site advertising” which is not permissible in Bedford. [There was nothing commercial on the signs]

Both White and Town Manager Keith Hickey, who officially issued the fines, said they had confirmed their interpretation with both the Secretary of State’s office and the Attorney General’s office. [Lie – we saw the letter.]

Hickey also said the decision was not politically motivated or targeted specifically against the B-CSE.

“It was my decision to do what I did,” he said. “I have received no guidance or input from a (town) councilor. I’m just trying to have organizations follow the rules. That’s all we’re trying to do, and I think we’ve been more than fair.”

White agreed that the CSE was not being targeted for their message.

“They had a ton of other signs up that I didn’t fine them for,” she said. “The only ones I took issue with were the ones that didn’t say vote for or against something. So I can’t see how that would be a political motivation.”

Michael Scanlon, new chairman of the town council, called the signs “a blatant disregard for the town’s sign ordinance” and agreed the town had been fair about it.

“I will tell you there were a lot more than 13 signs up,” he said. “If we really wanted to get crazy about it we could have sent them a bill for $50-, $60-, $70,000 if we wanted to.”

The B-CSE may file an appeal with the zoning board of adjustment.

Similar signs in November

Prior to the November special election, the B-CSE placed similar signs around town. White also issued a warning at that time but never fined the group.

This time around, the new signs had a small disclaimer at the bottom declaring the signs to be political messages and thus protected. White said the warning did not change anything.

“You can call a dog a cat, but that doesn’t make it a cat,” she said. “You may put a statement on it saying it’s political speech, but if it doesn’t meet the definition, it’s not political speech.”

B-CSE appeal rejected
August 5, 2004
Group claims $5K sign fine result of political ‘oppression’

A local taxpayer group known for its vocal opposition to a public high school, is still the subject of controversy after expressing frustration when the town rejected its appeal to eliminate $4,950 in fines for improper election signs.

Members of the Bedford chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy say they are victims of oppression by town officials.

Members say the town’s decision to deny their appeal, made at the July 20 zoning board of adjustment meeting, was motivated by politics. Officially, board members, who deny the accusation of political trickery, rejected the appeal on procedural grounds, saying it was filed too late.

Prior to the March 9 election, the B-CSE put up a number of signs, including some advertising “Taxpayer Radio,” a weekly radio show broadcast hosted by the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers. B-CSE members are frequent guests on the show, and argued the signs directed voters to a source of information on the election. Because of this, and a small disclaimer on the signs declaring the placards to be political speech, the B-CSE say the signs were just like any other political sign – exempt from the town’s zoning statutes on sign placement.

However, town officials say that according to state statutes, the signs were not protected as political speech. According to RSA 664:2, a political sign “expressly or implicitly advocates the success or defeat of any party, measure or person at any election.”

Because the signs urged residents to listen to a radio show and had no specific call to action in the upcoming election, town officials say the signs count as off-site commercial advertising. This type of advertising is forbidden under town zoning ordinances, and violations are punishable by a fine of $275 per sign, per day.

During the July 22 broadcast of Taxpayer Radio, B-CSE member Jane Aitken railed against the board’s decision, calling it an example of “official oppression.”

Town Council Chairman Michael Scanlon, a zoning board member and a frequent target of B-CSE criticism, said the board’s decision was completely apolitical.

“Forgetting about the merits of the case, you have to look at that one issue (of when they filed their appeal,” Scanlon said, “And say they didn’t file their appeal in a timely manner.”

As for the merits of the argument, Scanlon said it was clear the signs were not political advertising.

“You can call it whatever you want, but if it doesn’t meet the definition (of political advertising), it isn’t,” he said.

The disclaimer, which appeared in very small print at the bottom of the signs, did not change anything either, Scanlon added.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Basically these guys are just extremists. They want their way, and they think there’s a big conspiracy against them when they don’t get it.”

As an example of this, Scanlon pointed to comments made by B-CSE President Michelle Corcoran at the July 20 meeting, where she suggested Town Planner Karen White had driven on her lawn and knocked down a number of political signs. [She never said that.]

National affiliation

Further confusing the issue is the question of the B-CSE’s affiliation with the Citizens for a Sound Economy national organization.

A July 20 letter sent by the CSE’s national director of federal and state campaigns, Rob Jordan, to both the local chapter and White cast doubt on this relationship.

The $4,950 fine was actually paid in May by the national organization, but Jordan’s letter asks to rescind that action. He acknowledges an association between the local chapter and the national organization but only under specific circumstance of appealing the $4,950 fine.

The second condition, which forbids the local chapter from representing to “any third person that it is an agent for CSE for any other purpose,” caused widespread speculation among B-CSE’s political opponents.

David Grimes, a director of the Bedford High Coalition, pro public school group, said it indicated to him that the nationals had cut off the local chapter.

“The national organization goals are very different from the local’s,” he said. “The local was just trading on the (national) name to fight their own agenda.” [Opinion, not fact.]

“I think the (national) CSE was looking for people who were energetic volunteers and they found 10 of them and thought this was great,” Grimes said. “But they had no idea those people (in the B-CSE) didn’t care at all about the national agenda. They were just trying to fight education.” [They were trying to fight an increase of $2000 or more in taxes per year.]

In a brief e-mail statement, the B-CSE said the confusion over affiliation was due to a reorganization of the national group. The national CSE recently merged with Empower America, a similar conservative political group, to form a new organization called Freedom Works.

“The National CSE is simply reorganizing hence the name change,” the statement reads. “The B-CSE doesn’t know which organization it will choose to come under.

The statement also lashed out at town officials and The Bedford Journal, which reported the local group had been cut loose last week.

“It is not anything like what was printed in the Journal on the 29th,” the statement said. “That was a complete fabrication by town officials, their cohorts, and the Journal’s ‘cub’ reporter.”

Note: CSE fully supported our cause. See CSE Press Release captured here. There was nothing commercial on the signs, plenty of signs say the name of a candidate with no vote “yes or no”, and no one else has ever been fined for a sign. The above-named town officials along with some wealthy residents colluded to twist the definition of a political sign and claim it pointed to something commercial when it did not. (The radio show is non-profit just like CNHT) CSE knew that residents were fighting the school, which when eventually built, sent taxes skyrocketing more than $2000 per household, contrary to what the pro-school groups were saying before the election. The school is now a “UN” school. Mr. Mike Scanlon is again running for office in the 2010 Bedford town elections.