A controversial sign on state Route 28 in Milford has led to a dispute between town and village officials.
Milford Mayor Brian Pokorny sent a letter to Milford Town Supervisor Bernadette Atwell on Tuesday, Feb. 16, expressing concerns about two town Planning Board members. In the letter, Pokorny claims the officials tried to threaten him in an attempt to have the village take down the signs, one of which features advertising in support of former President Donald Trump, along with the statement “Protect Our Borders.”
Pokorny said Planning Board Chair Bruce Milavec and member Gary Wickham asked to meet with him in January to express concerns about the sign. A meeting took place at the town hall in the hamlet of Portlandville at the end of the month, but ended without a consensus about the sign, he said.
Pokorny said a follow-up letter from the two men expressed disappointment in him and warned him the village could be fined for non-compliance with the town’s 1991 law on zoning and signage.
“They said if the sign wasn’t removed, they would issue fines,” Pokorny said. In his letter to Atwell, he called it a “covert effort to ‘threaten’ the village board” and an attempt by the two men to “bypass” the town’s zoning board and zoning enforcement officer.
Wickham told the Daily Star that Pokorny’s allegations were “not true” and the issue was a misunderstanding. He referred all other questions to Milavec. However, Milavec told The Daily Star that he had turned the letter over to the town’s attorney and had no further comment on the matter at this time.
The town’s zoning enforcement officer, Barbara Monroe, told The Daily Star that the town’s attorney is reviewing the zoning laws and the issue of whether the Rome Sign Company signs, in general, or the Trump ad, specifically, violate town law. She said it is her job to issue the violations, but no violations have been issued over the signs thus far.
Atwell referred a request for comment from The Daily Star to Town Attorney Hyde Clarke, who confirmed the town will review its laws. He said he did not think a violation would be issued to village officials in the matter.
The sign is on village-owned property at 3898 state Route 28, but it is just outside the village’s boundaries, in the town of Milford, about eight miles from Cooperstown.
Half of the sign is an ad for a nearby McDonald’s restaurant in Hartwick Seminary. The other half of the sign is the ad in favor of the Trump. Both ads are visible to people traveling north on 28. A second sign on the same property is visible to south-bound travelers; it features an ad for a farm supply company.
Installed last spring, the ad originally said “Trump 2020.” It has been changed recently to say “Trump 2024.”
The Rome signs and the lease location are grandfathered in from town laws, according to RSC Business Manager Anna Johnson.
Johnson said the company has been flooded with complaints about the sign, but the company’s lawyers have said it does not violate any state or federal laws about political ads. She said the lawyers deemed “Protect Our Borders,” to be a statement of opinion that is protected by free speech laws, and expressing a desire for the former president to run in 2024 is not considered a political ad because Trump is not a formal candidate, yet.
Based on those opinions, and a concurring one from the village’s attorney, Johnson said the company cannot do anything about the sign and does not need to identify the customer who rented the signage, on the sign or elsewhere.
However, she said she personally wishes the sign would go away, and it will, in a couple of months, when the year-long contract runs out. A new ad is contracted to go up in the spring, she said, and it has nothing to do with any political candidates.
Pokorny’s letter was also signed by the village’s two trustees, Deputy Mayor Michael Strong and Austin Partridge. Although the village officials run as “members” of non-partisan groups, Pokorny said all three men are Republicans. He said he thinks Milavec and Wickham were acting in a partisan manner, but his concern is about free speech and keeping the village from having to pay a fine.
“This isn’t about politics to me,” he said. “If it were a (President Joe) Biden sign, I would have taken the exact same position I am taking now.”
Pokorny said he, too, is protecting the name of the advertiser, but he said the ad’s sponsor was a prominent local businessman who is not a Milford resident. Pokorny said the man contacted him in the past few weeks to offer to take the sign down early, but he refused the offer.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to be the one who tells you to do that,’” he said.
Pokorny said he has been accused of paying for the ad himself, and his family has born the brunt of people’s unhappiness with the sign.
Johnson said her company has had no problems with the customer, who paid for the sign to be updated this year, and also paid for his ad and the McDonald’s ad to be fixed after both signs were vandalized with white paint last summer.
“I’m not saying anything about the content of the ad, because we have to stay neutral,” she said, but “I do wish this would stop. We’re all Americans. We need to stay unified.”
Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7218.