Hartford Selectboard continues to mull banner policy

Hadley firefighters Joseph Boisvert, left, and Nicolas Wojtowicz work on attaching a banner honoring Tyler Prats, who is currently serving in the U.S. Army, on Tuesday afternoon, May 21, 2024, in Hadley, Mass. (Daily Hampshire Gazette - Dan Little)

Hadley firefighters Joseph Boisvert, left, and Nicolas Wojtowicz work on attaching a banner honoring Tyler Prats, who is currently serving in the U.S. Army, on Tuesday afternoon, May 21, 2024, in Hadley, Mass. (Daily Hampshire Gazette - Dan Little) Daily Hampshire Gazette — Dan Little

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-23-2024 7:01 PM

HARTFORD — A project to hang banners on municipal light poles to honor veterans and first responders remains in limbo as the Selectboard tries to find common ground on the parameters of a banner policy.

Two months have passed since a group of residents first introduced its “Hometown Heroes” project to the Selectboard. The group would display up to 12 banners this summer in downtown White River Junction to recognize veterans or first responders from Hartford.

The Selectboard, which had hoped to finalize a policy at last week’s meeting, had to table the discussion after several board members shared reservations about adopting a policy at this time.

A central concern, board members said, was the risk of litigation, given recent legal cases against municipalities over their sign or banner rules.

“It seems like we are just inviting more disagreements and it hurts the town,” said Selectboard member Mary Erdi on May 14. “I am just concerned about all the litigious issues (and) I’m uncomfortable with the fallout of all this.”

Organizers of the banners project plan to purchase and install the vinyl banners depicting photos and service information of town residents, who will be chosen by the project committee based on a review of applications submitted by families, Dennis Brown, the project’s chairman, said at a March meeting.

Before voting on the project, the Selectboard said it wants to adopt a policy that sets rules for the size and quality of the banners, as well as allowable locations and the durations of the displays.

A policy, in addition to establishing a fair and equal playing field for any organization seeking to display banners, could provide the town some legal backing when making decisions on banner requests, Selectboard Chairman Mike Hoyt said at a meeting on May 14.

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“Having a policy protects us if we refuse a banner application, (such as) a banner that is clearly offensive,” Hoyt said.

In voicing their concerns, board members referenced the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court case Shurtleff v. City of Boston, where the justices unanimously ruled in favor of a Christian organization that was denied a request to fly a religious flag at City Hall in Boston even though other private organizations were regularly allowed to have flag-raising ceremonies there.

The court observed that Boston had no written policy regarding which flags were allowable, board members noted.

But board members also said that having a policy would not guarantee the town protection from litigation.

“We can’t regulate the content,” board member Brandon Smith said. “It doesn’t matter if any one of us likes or doesn’t like a certain program or a certain banner. All that’s before us is how to allocate a limited town resource, how to make it fair so that private groups can use (that resource).”

In the 2015 case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a sign code that categorizes signs differently based on the information they convey violated the First Amendment. The Supreme Court similarly ruled in 2022’s City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising that the city’s regulation, which set different rules for the content on billboards based on the display’s physical location, was unconstitutional.

“I think any (policy) decisions or moves that we make should be … to do it right, so that if something comes back to us, we’re not saying that we didn’t think it,” said Vice Chairwoman Kim Souza. “I’m trying to be extra thoughtful about this.”

Supporters of the Hometown Heroes project said they are frustrated by the board’s lack of progress on the banners.

“(Our residents) are all wanting you to make decisions,” Joe Major, a former Selectboard member, said at the May 14 meeting. “Right now (you) are pontificating. Put something on the floor, make a decision and vote on it.”

Major, who supports having a policy, said that fear of litigation should not deter the board from allowing banner displays.

“Lawsuits are going to happen, sometimes over the most inane things,” Major told the board. “Don’t be afraid of that. Just make the law and go with it. Because any law or ordinance can be challenged at any time.”

The Hometown Heroes group has been waiting on the Selectboard to approve the project before accepting applications from families or to order the banners.

Brown, who initially presented the plan to the Selectboard in March, said organizers wanted to display the banners from Memorial Day through Veterans Day. But because the Selectboard has not approved the project yet, the committee has not started its review of applications nor ordered the banners, which will cost $105 apiece.

It will take six weeks to receive the banners once they are ordered, Brown said. The organization must also factor additional time to receive the Selectboard’s approval of the project, as the policy being considered by the board would require the submission a project application for the board’s review.

“It could be eight weeks before we can get this going,” Brown said. “We moved our plan to display them by July 4th, but I don’t think we can meet that date either.”

Board members also will need to agree on a policy rule for the duration of banner displays. Though Brown had requested a period of six months per year, several board members said they would prefer a maximum of 30 to 60 days.

Smith said at last week’s meeting that he wants a limit of two weeks.

A two week limit would not be practical due to the cost of the banners and the time and energy it takes to hang, and to later remove the banners from the streetlights, Brown said on Thursday.

The Selectboard will hold a meeting on Tuesday, June 4 to finalize a banner policy, Hoyt said in an email. The meeting will be held in Town Hall. The time has not yet been announced.

“I am optimistic that we will approve a final banner policy at this meeting.” Hoyt said. “While there are still open items to be decided regarding the policy, like the length of time banners can be hung, the Board will discuss these during the meeting and will adopt provisions that can get a majority of Board support. After the policy is adopted, groups wishing to hang banners can fill out an application.”

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.