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Town investigating confrontation at Recycling Center: Highway employees say 1st Amendment rights at stake

The loud and contentious presidential election debate arrived on Shelter Island over the issue of political flags on town employees’ private vehicles parked on town property.

The town has hired an outside attorney who will investigate an incident involving Highway Department employees and Councilman Jim Colligan at the Recycling Center on Oct. 19. The employees told the Reporter Mr. Colligan wanted to infringe on their 1st Amendment rights of free speech, and demanded his resignation from the Town Board.

The town is preparing an investigation into the incident, hiring outside council because it involves a member of town government, according to Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr., who declined to comment further, releasing a statement: “The Town of Shelter Island has no position on any candidate in the presidential election. We respect the free speech rights of all people, including our employees and ask that both those who wish to express themselves and those who may disagree with them, treat each other with dignity and respect. With regard to the interaction that occurred at the Recycling Center, the Town is investigating the matter.”

Mr. Colligan declined to take questions, noting via email: “I welcome the investigation of an impartial person(s) concerning this incident at the Recycling Center. Obviously, it would not be appropriate at this time to comment on this issue until both parties have been interviewed.”

The controversy was sparked one afternoon last week, according to Mike Mitchell, who is vice president of the union representing the employees of Highway Department. Ron Jernick, a veteran Highway Department employee, said that he, and two other department workers, Wesley Congdon and Zach Starzee, had parked their own pickup trucks at the Center with flags supporting President Trump.

At about 3:30 p.m., on Oct. 19, Councilman Jim Colligan pulled up to the scales with brush he wanted weighed, the men said. Mr. Starzee was working in the scale house, and Mr. Colligan asked, “What’s the deal with the flags?”

Mr. Jernick and Mr. Congdon were also in the scale house and heard the conversation and, according to Mr. Jernick, his colleague asked Mr. Colligan what he meant by his question.

Mr. Colligan then said, according to Mr. Jernick, “You need to take the flags down. And tell everyone Jim Colligan said so.”

The men returned to their duties, Mr. Jernick said, but shortly after that, at the bins where mulch is kept, he was approached by the councilman who told him he couldn’t make political statements on town property. Mr. Jernick responded that it was no different than bumper stickers on private vehicles supporting political candidates. Mr. Colligan then became abusive, Mr. Jernick said, raising his voice and swearing at him, saying that if the flags were not taken down, “Don’t expect any more favors from me.”

Mr. Jernick assumed the councilman was not speaking personally, but about the Highway Department at large.

“Why was he yelling? Mr. Jernick said. “It was actions unbecoming a councilman.”

The union representative, Mr. Mitchell, went further, saying Mr. Colligan should resign over the alleged threat of withholding “favors.”

He then went to the town attorney and lodged an official complaint. Mr. Mitchell added that the union and the employees are considering contacting the American Civil Liberties Union over what they see as an attempt to intimidate them to forfeit their rights of free speech, and will also contact other media outlets.

Highway Superintendent Brian Sherman said Tuesday that his office had fielded “complaints” from residents using the Recycling Center and seeing parked private vehicles, with flags supporting President Trump.

Looking into matter, Mr. Sherman said he discovered “there’s no town policy on this.”