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The Curious Case of David Mongielo

Lockport, NY business owner fights to keep electronic message center.

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Selective enforcement of sign codes often impacts an individual or company’s ongoing battle with a governmental body. Take, for example, the plight of Norfolk, VA’s Central Radio Co., which has been fighting an eminent-domain attempt caused by Old Dominion Univ.’s expansion. Central Radio’s owners responded with a large sign on its exterior walls that conveyed new of the eminent-domain threat. City officials cited the sign as a violation of local codes, despite the unchecked installation of many similar signs throughout town. According to a February 25 article by the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the trial has been postponed as both sides await a ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court on a similar eminent-domain case.

Those scenarios involved company feuds with city governments. The case of David Mongielo, the owner of a Lockport, NY auto-repair shop, presents an individual taking on local authorities. Several years ago (different reports alternately state 2009 or 2010 as when the first offense occurred) he was initially cited for operating an electronic message center. According to a Politics in Lockport Blogspot report, posted by Buffalo News reporter Tom Prohaska, the ordinance states that a sign may not change messages more than once every 10 seconds. Mongielo was slapped with a $700 fine, and warned that a second offense within a year could yield jail time.

He was cited a second time – shortly before the year expired – after his sign displayed a video that promoted a fundraiser for Allen Gerhardt, a Niagara County sheriff’s deputy who’d lost both legs in a car accident while on duty. According to the Blogspot report, a video, recorded by Donald J. Jablonski, the town’s GOP chairman and a zoning-board member, showed the display’s fundraiser promotion, which changed messages every two seconds. Mongielo claimed because the displayed video conveyed a non-commercial message, it was in the public interest and, thus, not subject to regulation.

In December 2011, the case went to a non-jury trial, and, the following March, a 15-day jail sentence was issued by Town Justice Raymond E. Schilling. The sentence was stayed pending appeal, and Mongielo has served no jail time. Last October, Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III overturned the sentence and ordered Mongielo be given a new trial by jury because Schilling hadn’t used proper procedure before allowing Mongielo to represent himself without legal counsel.

The plot thickened when, on April 24, Mongielo didn’t show up for a scheduled court appearance. According to news reports, he claims the town court doesn’t have jurisdiction over him, and isn’t obligated to appear in court. Town Attorney Bradley Marble asked for an immediate bench warrant for Mongielo’s arrest but Schilling, still the town court’s presiding justice, stated that he would instead send a court summons that orders him to appear on May 7. Mongielo responded that he will not comply with the summons; further, according to an April 25 Buffalo News report, he’s filed a kidnapping complaint against Schilling. The upcoming summons is not the beginning of the retrial; it’s merely an appearance required to set a hearing date.

Some may view Mongielo as an American hero; others may perceive him as a militant, ill-tempered gadfly. Either way, he has a legitimate beef with a poorly written sign code authored by officials who seem to believe that dynamic displays cause accidents. Studies have repeatedly shown that electronic message centers don’t cause accidents, but some people simply can’t be persuaded with facts.

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We haven’t yet spoken to any principals in this case; it clearly will further unfold. But, it certainly bears monitoring. Mongielo has gained a measure of notoriety in upstate New York as “the sign guy”, and has started a website and blog, www.signjail.com, which recounts his issues with local officials and solicits financial contributions.

Stay tuned. This could get really interesting.
 

Stay tuned. This could get really interesting.
 

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