WARSAW — The Warsaw Chamber of Commerce’s “gateway” signs have long boosted a variety of community organizations.
Any driver approaching on routes 19 or 20A has likely observed placards for organizations such as the Warsaw Moose, the Wyoming County YMCA, local veteran organizations and more. And if they’re approaching from the east, they’ll likely see a major show of support for President Donald Trump.
The eastern gateway has been festooned with campaign signs and flags for the past few weeks — added decorations from the property owner, Jeff Cullinan, and not the Chamber itself.
The development doesn’t sit well with some area residents, to put it mildly. They worry passersby will interpret it as a strong political endorsement by the Chamber and the groups displaying their placards.
But due to an agreement made when the gateways were first established about 50 years ago, there’s not much they can do.
The Chamber of Commerce never actually bought the property where the eastern sign is located or secured any easements or similar legal arrangements on the matter.
Chamber officials said Cullinan has the right to do as he likes under the circumstances — in this case, an enthusiastic and very colorful show of support for Trump as election day approaches, whatever observers may think.
“It’s really the individual organizations at this point that would have to approach (the owner) at this point if they had an issue with it,” said Chamber President Tami Treutlein.
As it stands, the display is engendering controversy, often from residents who belong to the organizations whose placards are on the sign.
Some object strongly.
“I have been a member of the Walter Klein (American Legion) Post in Warsaw for nearly 30 years,” said Robert Yott, who wrote the book Soldier’s Fight, Veteran’s Vote. “I am vehemently against Jeff Cullinan hijacking the Chamber’s sign. Warsaw may be predominantly red but that guy does not speak for everyone. Case in point, Danny Coveny, who lost a brother in Vietnam, wrote a letter speaking out against Trump. I spoke with Becky Ryan, the town supervisor who claims they are powerless to do anything about it.”
Resident Lynn Saxton isn’t a spokesperson for any of the agencies involved, but is a Wyoming County Y member and also has concerns.
“I believe the sign should be free of politicization,” she said. “The purpose of the sign is to advertise the organizations listed and to represent Warsaw as a whole. These political signs are divisive and do not belong there, and they also cover some of the organizations that paid to be on the sign.
“I understand that the current owner was not part of the original gentleman’s agreement, and that there is no legal recourse here ... Personally, I’d like to see the sign removed, and perhaps placed somewhere else with a written legal agreement established.”
“Many people have complained that it gives the impression Warsaw is a Trump town — it is not — and that the not-for-profits are Trump supporters,” said Suzanne Coogan. “The gateway sign hasn’t otherwise been an issue over the decades. It’s located outside the village limits and the informal hosting arrangement was made with the property’s original owner.”
But things have changed with the Trump display.
“That’s causing concern for many residents, including current and former Chamber members, and those belonging to the organizations which have kept their placards on the gateway,” Coogan said. “... The situation is offensive to many people — including myself — who find the current failed president impossibly awful ... I do not know how this can be resolved before Nov. 3, and who knows, maybe not even then.”
There’s ultimately little the Chamber or those who object can do.
Treutlein noted the Chamber’s dilemma. It’s still concerned that the political signs are located with trademarked not-for-profit logos, for organizations which can’t legally offer political endorsements.
She said she met with Cullinan several weeks ago and noted he’s not wrong that the sign’s on his property. There are likewise no zoning infringements.
“That (gateway) is 100 percent on his property and he has no legal reason why he has to let us have a right of way,” she said. “Nothing was ever filed.”
Treutlein said Cullinan was also very amenable to speaking with the organizations involved, fielding their concerns, and removing their signs if they wish.
“I have been fielding calls since June and I agree, there shouldn’t be any political side put to any organization, or the impression that our town or village feels one way or another, but at this point it’s out of my hands, there’s nothing I can do for the situation,” she said.
Cullinan declined to speak with The Daily News when approached two weeks ago. But he did write a letter to the editor in response to another letter complaining about the signs.
“First and foremost, this sign is on private property,” he said. “The sign and signs attached are personal property. As owner of said property, I can place any additional sign on the larger sign. It is my right, as owner of the property owner.
“Liberals and Democrats are opposed to the because they support Biden,” he continued. “Writing letters complaining about personal signs on personal properties, as well as doxxing people and attempting to steal the signs show their level of ‘Trump derangement.’”
“Doxxing” is the practice of publicizing a person’s address and other personal information without permission, typically on social media.
Vice Chair Hugh Tenhagen of the town’s Republican committee said the group met Thursday. He said it’s his understanding that Cullinan owns the property and is definitely a Trump supporter.
The GOP naturally also supports Trump — as did a large portion of Wyoming County residents in 2016 — and with Cullinan being the property owner, there’s no legal prohibitions against him. And the county had among the state and nation’s highest per capita number of Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential election.
Tenhagen is encouraging people in general to vote or register to do so. When the sun comes up on Nov. 4, he said, the situations that were there the day before will still be there.
In the meantime the situation continues and a portion of residents remain concerned, but the Chamber appears stuck for now — it doesn’t necessarily make sense to try to secure the funding and arrangements to create a new gateway sign in such a short period of time.
And the Chamber hears the complaints.
“It frustrating because I feel for the people who are calling me and I agree with the people who are calling me,” Treutlein said. “I’ve individually taken the time, whether it’s five minutes or 45 minutes, to go through all the ramifications ... What I don’t like is this new group of people giving the impression that we don’t care — It’s not. It’s the law. I wish I could have a better answer and I wish I could come to some sort of agreement.”