Despite a controversial ordinance introduced recently by West New York Board of Commissioners that would ban certain types of signs and flags in town, Mayor Felix Roque said in an interview last week that they will insert a grandfather clause so that business owners and residents who previously obtained permits from the city can continue displaying signs.
“My goal is not to hurt the businesses of West New York,” Roque said. “My goal is to improve the town’s economy.”
Roque’s political opponents say the ordinance was aimed at a group of anti-Roque critics who have lobbied publicly against the mayor using a TV on Wheels truck which holds large LED screens.
Frank Ferriero, a Sayreville resident who owns TV on Wheels and also heads the group Residents for a Better West New York, cited a section of the new ordinance that specifically defines “vehicle, mobile or standing signs.” The definition specifically names “a multimedia sign that contains television or moving signs on a vehicle.”
“Our ordinance does not prohibit religious, political or personal messages.” - Mayor Felix Roque
“Any existing signs that legally obtained permits from the town, the zoning board, or some other office before the date of the ordinance would be allowed to remain,” Fonseca said. “The town will check its records to determine which signs those are.”
A political move?
Since its introduction, Roque has argued that the ordinance’s purpose is to clean up the town’s streets in preparation for the Formula One Grand Prix auto race, scheduled to be run in Weehawken and West New York in 2014. He said that the town’s excessive advertising, especially along Bergenline Avenue, is a detriment to the town’s aesthetics.
“I am trying to dress West New York for success. New investors, new developers,” he said. “We’re going to be in the spotlight.”
Roque denied that the ordinance, which was introduced at a Board of Commissioners meeting on Jan. 16, is politically motivated and designed to quiet critics.
“The ordinance is designed to be aimed at me,” charged Ferreiro. “The ordinance is very vague and very broad, and it leaves [Roque] a lot of room to do whatever he wants to do.”
In an interview with news blog Hudson County TV last week, Roque said that he had never even heard of Residents for a Better West New York, or the individual running it. However, he told The Hudson Reporter after a Dec. 17 Board of Commissioners meeting that he did not support the group’s proposed ballot initiatives, which include changing the town’s form of government and the process by which school board members are chosen.
Multiple sources have said that they recalled seeing Roque’s campaign advertisements on Ferreiro’s trucks when he ran for mayor in 2011.
“[The ordinance] seems a little hollow coming from him, given he was using the same tactics when he ran against [former Mayor Silverio “Sal”] Vega,” said Marcel Hart, a teacher at West New York Middle School.
Fonseca said that the mayor had no recollection of using TV on Wheels during his mayoral campaign.
Critics of the ordinance, including Ferreiro, Commissioner Count Wiley, and ex-police officer and mayoral hopeful Carlos Betancourt, have accused the mayor of potentially violating residents’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment.
“What if there’s a soccer game and you want to attach your country’s flag to your car and drive down Bergenline Avenue in celebration?” Wiley said. “Now you’re going to get a fine for it.”
Wiley, who has been an outspoken opponent of Roque’s since his arrest in May on hacking charges, said that he never saw the ordinance until a few minutes before the Jan. 16 meeting, one of the reasons he did not vote for it. The ordinance was introduced by a vote of 4-1, with Wiley being the only dissenting vote.
Meanwhile, Residents for a Better West New York held a rally against the ordinance outside Town Hall on Wednesday. Protesters carried signs that likened Roque to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and read “West New York is not Cuba.”
“[Roque] has taken this ordinance, turned it into a totalitarian knife, and is using it to cut up the Constitution,” said Betancourt.
Roque responded to criticism by arguing that the ordinance does not infringe on a citizen’s First Amendment Rights.
“Our ordinance does not prohibit religious political or personal messages and it does not prohibit content,” he said. “It prohibits the way that content is portrayed, considering quality of life and safety.”
Flag ban causes mass confusion
The story of the ordinance took an unforeseen turn last week when national media organizations picked it up after MyFoxNY ran a story on its website under the headline “N.J. town proposes flag ban.” The Huffington Post and other outlets have published stories on the ordinance, although nearly all reports have misinterpreted the ordinance as a ban on the American flag, a charge which Roque has vehemently denied.
“I’m a retired Army Colonel,” he said. “This ordinance has nothing to do with the American flag.”
The confusion stemmed from an article in the ordinance that places a ban on all “flags, banners and pennants.”
“When we say flags, we are talking about business flags,” he said. “Promotional flags, not the American flag.”
Residents took comfort in knowing the American flag would not be banned throughout the town, but said the confusion could have been avoided.
“The ordinance isn’t very well written,” Hart said.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org