To the Editor:

When my husband, who was working from home this past Friday, in his office, which overlooks our front yard, came downstairs around 10:20 a.m. and told me that “Parks and Rec” just took our sign, I looked at him and thought, “What the heck did you put in your coffee this morning?”  But a few seconds later, I turned and said to him, “Did you mean DPW?”  His reply, “Yes.”

My son’s bus was due home at 10:50 a.m.  I had been cleaning all morning.  I was still wearing my pajamas.  I was standing in my kitchen.  The vacuum was still plugged in.  If I didn’t quickly finish vacuuming, mop the floor and jump in the shower in the next five minutes, the opportunity to do so peacefully might not come again until Wednesday at the earliest. 

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I stood there for a few minutes, not sure what to do.  It was just a sign.  My kids were safe.  Relatively.  No one eats off the floor anymore.  Mop, shower, and move on?  Seemed logical enough. 

But wait.  That sign, that one single sign, was on my private property.  It didn’t contain profanity or obscene images.  But maybe I kept it out there too long (like my Christmas decorations), or maybe it was too close to the road.  Did I break the law?  I didn’t know.

I called the Chatham Township Police Department's non-emergency number.  I almost hung up when the dispatcher answered.  In a shaky voice, “Um, my sign was stolen.”  Okay, I should have showered.  I have to go out for the bus in a few minutes and now I’m going to be wearing my bleach-stained pajamas for the rest of the day.  

The dispatcher didn’t laugh.  In fact, she was sending an officer out to talk to me.  A few minutes later, my doorbell rings.  Shoot, I’m still in my pajamas. Oh well, I’m sure they’ve seen worse.  I open the door.  It’s an officer I recognize.  He took my report a few months ago when I called after a commercial van drove past the school bus, which was stopped at the intersection of Meyersville Road and Candace Lane, lights flashing, stop sign extended, while kids from SBS were actively crossing.  My first-grader, my six-year-old, and a fellow first-grader made it across before the van proceeded because it just couldn’t wait a second longer in an area of town that already can’t handle the volume of traffic it sees.  The second graders and third graders stood there, waiting to cross, looking at us staring back at them.  We’re speechless.  So speechless not one of us thinks to get the license plate of the van.  Lesson learned. 

A little wave of relief floats over me as I realize this isn’t the first time I’ve met the officer.   Although as I stand there and ask the officer if I’ve broken a law or ordinance in any way that would explain the DPW walking onto my lawn and taking my sign, I realize I’m finding myself in the same situation as the last time we met.  Speechless.  Just, in a different way.

That sign represented my first amendment right.  Yet here I am, less than 24 hours after sitting in a Township meeting and watching the committee celebrate the 100th anniversary of a woman’s right to vote, losing my right to free speech.  

Let’s just say that although my call about the missing sign was the first one, it wasn’t a surprise.  And it wasn’t expected to be the only one.  Reports weren’t going to be taken and the location of my sign was already known (Township Clerk’s Office) and provided to me.

At this point, I had to go out and wait for the bus.  It was a half-day before the holiday weekend.  There was no lunch at school.  The bus arrived and first thing my son said to me was that he was hungry.  But by this point, it had all come together for me and I realized that if I stopped to make a grilled cheese, my sign, and my neighbors’ signs, were going to be in a dumpster and long gone before we could do anything before Township offices re-opened after the long holiday weekend.

I put my son in the car and drove to the Municipal Building, walked into the Clerk’s Office, and there it was – a pile of approximately 20-25 signs just like my own – and two visibly shaken Township employees.  Employees who went out of their way to offer to carry all of the signs back to my car for me, doing their part to try and correct what they knew was wrong.  Two hours later, another neighbor went to the Municipal Building and picked up another large pile of signs.

Mr. Kelly, I read your statement in which you regret the “misunderstanding” that led to the removal of our signs.  To be perfectly clear, the only reason “The signs were back in the possession of the group by 1 p.m. the same day” and not in a dumpster is because my neighbors and I drove to the Municipal Building, retrieved our signs, and loaded them into the back of our cars.

A misunderstanding you claim?  If the Township has a “decade-long process” to remove signs from a “few municipal properties” where they might be misconstrued as a public endorsement of a candidate or issue, isn’t it fair to say that the DPW has extensive experience with said process and would not decide to extend it to private property without first clarifying?

Did not one employee at the Township Clerk’s office stop and question the large number of signs that the DPW was bringing in, far more than could possibly be posted in one of the “few municipal properties” from which they were allegedly ordered to be removed?

Why was the first neighbor of mine to retrieve his signs from the Clerk’s office told that the reason the signs were removed is because the DPW was told to remove ALL SIGNS that were within 25 feet of the Township’s right of way, yet a “Bloomberg 2020” sign on Meyersville, within 25 feet of the road, remained untouched?

Why have requests to see the exact directive sent to the DPW been ignored?

Why did the police anticipate my call and know exactly where my sign was?

Why hasn’t an apology been issued to the DPW, to the police, to the visibly shaken Township employees whose time you wasted, at the taxpayers’ expense?

I know why.  Because this wasn’t an “unintentional mistake.”  It was a mistake, yes, but it was every bit intentional.  On a Friday before a long weekend.  When the Township Administrator was conveniently out of the office.

I have that sign in my front yard for many reasons, but the number one reason is because for the remainder of the day that van drove through the kids actively crossing the street after getting off the bus, my six-year-old looked at me, multiple times, tears welling up in her big blue eyes, and said “Mom, I could have died today.”  My child deserves to be able to cross the street safely, as does every other child in this town, and the safety of our children should not be jeopardized to fulfill an affordable housing obligation.  

Those same kids that deserve to be able to cross the street safely deserve the uninterrupted continuation of programs like the Chatham Basketball Club and the Chatham Youth Wrestling that rely on Mountainview Gym.  No one neighborhood’s property values and aesthetics should be adversely affected by concentrating the bulk of the affordable housing obligation in one “far out” location with no access to public transportation and no shopping within walkable distance.

I could list many more reasons why that sign is in my yard.  But it’s almost midnight, I’m back in pajamas, and my kitchen floor still isn’t mopped.  But I can assure you my floor is not nearly as dirty as whatever is going on behind closed doors in that Municipal Building.

Erin Burgo,

Chatham Township