Fire companies disavow it
By Michael Turton
A controversial political advertisement recently published in the Putnam County News and Recorder (PCNR) has caused concern among local fire companies and raised questions regarding the weekly paper’s advertising policies. The half-page ad appeared on Page 9 of the Oct 26, 2011, edition of the PCNR. That in itself was hardly unusual. The Philipstown Town Board election is fast approaching and the final weeks of the campaign has featured numerous ads, purchased by both Republican and Democratic candidates and their organizations. The fact that the ad was highly critical of incumbent Supervisor Richard Shea and the Fire Rescue & EMS Services Planning Report, or the “Graner Report,” was not unusual in the midst of a hard-fought campaign.
Fire company emblem may have mislead readers
What raised eyebrows is that the ad was unattributed, with only the phrase “Paid Political Advertisement” appearing at the bottom. Political ads published in the PCNR during this election cycle have routinely indicated who paid for them. More unusual was the inclusion of the “Maltese Cross,” the emblem widely used to identify fire companies. While most local firefighters contacted by Philipstown.info were reluctant to be identified, several said that the ad was misleading because it left the impression that it had been placed by a local fire company. Officials from all four local fire departments – Cold Spring, Garrison, North Highlands and Continental Village — confirmed that they did not place the ad.
Philipstown.info contacted the PCNR to clarify its advertising policies and to ascertain details regarding the Oct. 26 ad. When asked if he would identify who had placed the ad in question, Associate Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Doug Cunningham said, “I don’t think I will.” He said that the paper does confirm who places ads. When asked why authors of letters-to-the-editor must be identified while the purchaser of the ad in question was not identified he said: “This is a somewhat different issue … letters-to-the-editor is not directly analogous.” Cunningham was also asked if the Maltese Cross graphic was supplied by the advertiser or by the PCNR. “I’ll have to research and analyze that … to see if I want to say anything, and frankly I may not,” he said.
The PCNR does not print political letters-to-the-editor in the edition prior to an election because it does not allow time for a response. Asked if there was any concern that Shea would not be able to respond to the attack ad using a letter-to-the-editor, Cunningham said: “Our policy on ads and letters-to-the-editor is clear and we saw no need to change it this year. We may next year – that would depend on my review of events… Ads are allowed right up to the final issue (before an election).” He also said that the paper was not going to turn down revenue. Cunningham said that he would consider Philipstown.info’s questions further, including the issue of who supplied the Maltese Cross graphic, and returned the call just moments later. “I don’t think there is anything else to say… I think it’s up to the volunteers and the fire companies to debate the issues, not us – not you and I,” he said. When pressed further about the PCNR’s advertising policies, Cunningham terminated the call in mid-sentence.
Fire company president speaks out
Jamie Copeland, president of the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company, appeared before the Philipstown Town Board on Nov. 3 to deliver his monthly report and commented on the ad in his opening remarks. “I need to say publicly that the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company does not take out political ads. We are a non-aligned, non-political, all-volunteer company…We do not place ads … it is very important … that the people we serve know that we are non-aligned and that we come with our first and greatest interest – serving them in their time of need.” Contacted later by Philipstown.info, Copeland commented further, saying that they were his personal beliefs, not necessarily those of the fire company. “The reason people volunteer is because of an innate sense people have — the need to serve each other. That is thwarted when we begin to think as factions, as parties… I believe that in local elections, especially, it should be about a contest of ideas — and let the voters decide. We’re too small a community to let party politics be so important. Our members are volunteers, they’re activists. They are passionate. And the politicians better know that they vote,” Copeland continued. “But as an organization, we cannot and will not align (politically). We do not vote as a block — but we are definitely interested in the management of the community. Once we become just a location, with no responsibility to each other, we are no longer a community,” he said.
George Lisikatos, chairman of the North Highlands Fire District Board of Commissioners, also commented on the ad: “I don’t think it was right. If someone has something to say, fine; go for it. This is a free country and I hope that never changes. It can be a political ad … but to put the Maltese Cross in it … that was wrong.”
Michael Bowman, president of the Cold Spring Fire Company, preferred not to comment on the ad itself, but emphatically confirmed that his fire company did not place it.
The ad may have had an unintended effect. “In all my years of serving on the Town Board, I have never had so many firefighters call me at one time than I have over that ad. Even people I know are not voting for me called to say it wasn’t the right thing to do and they wanted me to know they were not associated with it. I appreciated that,” Shea said.
Photo by M. Turton