Riverside sign ruling: No harm, no foul

A recent Elections Enforcement Commission ruling involving New London carries a couple of lessons.

First, while it is vitally important to have laws that require candidates and campaign committees to disclose where the money is coming from to underwrite their elections, it is also good to know that those rules leave enough leeway for a citizen to make a sign and stick it in their yard to promote a point of view.

On the other hand, it's more effective to get organized.

That is the upshot of a recent decision by the Connecticut Elections Enforcement Commission. The case involved a few campaign signs in New London that urged voters to approve the referendum asking for approval to sell a portion of Riverside Park to the adjacent Coast Guard Academy. By a narrow margin last November, voters rejected the sale.

Dr. George Sprecace, father of current City Councilor Adam Sprecace (both are Republicans), paid for a few signs urging voters to support the sale. Jay Levin, a lobbyist, Democrat and long a political powerbroker in the city, told Sprecace he liked the signs. Using the same printer, he used the same design, but stuck his own name at the bottom of his signs.

Others questioned whether something was amiss, concluding that it appeared Sprecace and Levin were part of some coordinated effort to support the referendum without filing the requisite campaign committee paperwork and listing donations and expenditures. Both Wayne T. Vendetto Jr. and Ronna Stuller filed complaints with the Elections Enforcement Commission.

A couple of weeks ago the commission voted to dismiss the complaints.

The commission, in its decision, notes that under state election laws any individual may, without having to file a disclosure form, spend money to promote the success or defeat of a referendum provided the cost does not exceed $1,000. The commission found no evidence that Sprecace or Levin, either individually or collectively, spent more than $1,000 on their signs.

The commission also found that because the signs were less than 32-square-feet in size, there was no requirement to include the phrase, "paid for by."

Therefore, "Levin and Sprecace voluntarily exceeded the disclosure requirements set by law through voluntarily including their own name, respectively, on the … posters each independently produced."

In a related matter, Edward DeMuzzio was questioned about post cards he sent out urging approval of the referendum and advertisements he placed online on the New London Patch. The complainants questioned whether he was part of a coordinated effort to push for approval.

DeMuzzio told the commission he acted alone. He acknowledged paying for the unattributed post cards and online advertising. On the advice of the commission staff, DeMuzzio subsequently filed the required paperwork - an Independent Expenditure Statement for Individuals.

The irony, of course, is that if proponents of the sale had better organized, perhaps they could have squeaked out a victory. Instead, the Friends of Riverside Park were well and officially organized and carried the day. So while Dr. Sprecace and Mr. Levin avoided both fines and paperwork, they also avoided a victory.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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