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Mayor charged with violating First Amendment rights

Date: 3/28/2012

March 28, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

WESTFIELD — According to At Large City Councilor David Flaherty, a rift has seemingly existed between himself and Mayor Daniel Knapik almost "from day one" of his election to the council in 2010.

"Generally I'm supportive of many of the things he does, but there are some things that I question," Flaherty told Reminder Publications. "We're both Republicans, so it's not a Republican Democrat thing."

That rift, however, came to a very public head on March 21, when Flaherty, along with Jane Wensley, Ward 3 representative to the Municipal Light Board and property owner David Costa, filed a lawsuit against Knapik in U. S. District Court, alleging that the mayor had violated the plaintiffs' civil liberties by instructing municipal employees to remove campaign signs from Costa's property the day prior to the Nov. 8, 2011 elections.

In specific, the complaint, brought by attorneys William Newman and Luke Ryan of the Northampton office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Massachusetts, alleges that, by his actions, Knapik violated the rights to free speech guaranteed to the plaintiffs under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U. S. Constitution.

"This case is about what's right and wrong, and about stopping this type of illegal activity in the future," Flaherty said in a statement released to the press. "The illegal actions taken by Mayor Knapik, and city employees under his direction, are clear violations of basic rights all citizens are guaranteed by the constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights rights that we pledge to support as both citizens and elected public servants."

Ryan said the ACLU has "a long tradition of safeguarding First Amendment rights and campaign signs have been noted as an issue with the Western Mass. branch."

Flaherty said he learned about the sign removal through a photograph that appeared in the Westfield Evening News on Nov. 8, 2011, showing a municipal employee unloading his campaign materials from a Department of Public Works (DPW) truck.

"When someone went to the election page to see where to vote and what time, there was a picture of my signs being hauled away," Flaherty said, adding that he contacted the ACLU and began proceedings on or about Nov. 8, 2011.

Ryan said four months is not an unusual amount of time between an incident and the filing of a complaint of this type as "There's a certain amount of due diligence any party wants to do before they put in a suit."

The statue of limitations on complaints of this type is three years, he added.

The complaint filed last Wednesday indicates that Flaherty's signs at 133 Lindberg Blvd. — as well as those placed by Wensley's campaign — were of the approved size according to city statues and were located more than 500 feet from the nearest polling place, at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Apartments on Kasper Drive. It also indicates that Wensley's signs had been in place for "approximately one month" when Flaherty erected his signs.

The complaint indicates the same conditions existed on 38 East Silver St., where Flaherty erected signs near those of fellow At Large City Council incumbent John Beltrandi III.

Knapik's home, located at 43 East Silver St., had a clear view of both properties, according to court documents, and a sign for a candidate running against Flaherty was erected on Knapik's lawn.

Telephone records obtained by the ACLU indicate that Knapik made multiple cell phone calls to James Mulvenna, manager of the DPW, on Nov. 7. The complaint alleges that Knapik directed Mulvenna to have city employees remove first Flaherty's signs, and shortly thereafter, Wensley and Beltrandi's signs from the properties in question.

The complaint alleges that Mulvenna admitted to Beltrandi that the sings were removed at the request of "higher ups" after Beltrandi had inquired of both the Westfield Police Department and the DPW if the signs were removed due to a public complaint.

Flaherty said sign removals had happened in town before, but it was always campaign groups knocking down each other's signs, not campaign materials being removed by municipal employees.

"I believe the evidence will substantiate all of the claims made in the complaint, and that Mayor Knapik, in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election, ordered city employees to illegally remove my campaign signs the day before the election," Flaherty said. "This is a gross violation of both federal and state laws, an abuse of power, and a misappropriation of government resources."

Ryan said that, as of March 22, Knapik had not been served with the complaint.

Once Knapik receives it, Ryan said he has "three weeks or so" to respond. Following that, there would be a status conference where, according to Ryan, the court, with input from the plaintiffs and defendant "will give a roadmap for litigating [the case]."

Knapik did not return repeated calls placed to his office.

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