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John Cacoulidis could be described as — well, he could be described in terms that would give my libel lawyer ulcers, so, to avoid irritated stomach linings, let’s just say Cacoulidis seems — eccentric. Nothing wrong with eccentric, of course. This country was founded by eccentrics and is still run by people who could be characterized as eccentric (assuming the person doing the characterizing is overly charitable).
Cacoulidis, a wealthy New York developer, first came to public attention in Maine in 2002, when he proposed building twin 640-foot towers on the South Portland waterfront as part of a hotel/convention center/hospital complex that would be connected to Portland by cable cars across the harbor. Development officials had to take him aside and explain the project was, um, eccentric.
Next Cacoulidis and his wife complained about the property taxes they paid for their private island off Cumberland. When town officials were less than sympathetic, Cacoulidis asked the Legislature to allow the island to secede and form its own municipality, population: two. The bill was killed after being referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Eccentricities.
Last spring, Cacoulidis proposed using his island for a liquefied natural gas terminal, prompting his neighbors to suggest he was — let’s just say the word "eccentric" would not be an adequate synonym. "So far, I have not been accepted as a Mainer, yet," he told the Maine Sunday Telegram, displaying a penchant for understatement my libel lawyer has suggested I could benefit from emulating.
While Cacoulidis’s activities have often been entertaining, they’d hardly have been sufficient to elicit the above comparison with the Founding Fathers if it weren’t for his most recent foray into the public consciousness. In July, he had a large sign hung on the front of his island boathouse, proclaiming, "Bush Cheney ’04."
Neighbors complained, arguing the poster violated a local ordinance prohibiting political signs that could be viewed from the public way, except within 30 days of an election. But town officials decided the sign could not, technically, be seen from a public way, so Cacoulidis could keep it up.
How beneficent of the municipal overseers to allow somebody to practice the rights granted under the First Amendment.
Like many Americans, I’d always assumed that if I were seized with a deep-seated conviction that Governor John Baldacci’s press secretary ought to be removed from office, I was free to express this eccentric notion by putting a sign in my front yard that read "Impeach Lee Umphrey." If I snapped after hearing the grating voice of Maine’s junior senator once too often, I felt I had the inalienable right to erect a billboard on my property urging my fellow citizens to "Demand Susan Collins Get Voice Lessons." Like Cacoulidis, I was certain this stuff was covered under the umbrella of freedom of speech.
Not so, apparently.
In 2002, Auburn police went onto private property to seize signs for Republican gubernatorial candidate Peter Cianchette, because they’d been erected more than the permitted 30 days before the general election.
That same year, enforcers in Kittery ordered the Green Independent Party’s candidate for governor, Jonathan Carter, to take down a sign outside his campaign headquarters, because it had been posted too early.
In 2003, Lewiston cops stepped in when a few citizens erected early signs on their lawns supporting a casino in Maine. Pull ’em up, they were told, or else.
This past January, the town of Belfast demanded the removal of posters for Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, even though the signs were put up within 30 days of the state’s caucuses. Caucuses are not elections, the local poobahs decided, so placards are not permitted. The state attorney general issued an opinion to the contrary, and Belfast relented.
And in July, the town of Lincolnville demanded that Dennis Webber take down a sign in front of his house containing a biblical quotation, because it was within 33 feet of the center of a public road. Only business signs are allowed in this sacred zone. (How about, "Jesus says use Poland Spring Water at your next baptism.")
For an eccentric, John Cacoulidis seems to have lots of company.
City and town officials argue their local laws are needed because the signs are eyesores. In Lewiston? C’mon.
They claim political posters can be a hazard, blocking drivers’ views of pedestrians. Lots of Munchkins live in Belfast, do they?
They insist they have to enforce the law, even if the law is plainly unconstitutional. Apparently, they’ve forgotten who passed these unconstitutional laws in the first place.
What’s needed is some common sense. Since that appears to be an unrealistic expectation, a lawsuit would probably do the trick, allowing the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to rule once and for all on just how eccentric we’re allowed to be.
If you don’t want to put your message on a lawn sign, email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Politics and Other Mistakes archive.
Issue Date: August 20 - 26, 2004
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