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Glen Cove rescinds picnic permit for mayor's opponent

Jack Vilella at Morgan Park in Glen Cove

Jack Vilella at Morgan Park in Glen Cove Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. He wanted to hold an "informational community picnic" with a Facebook-organized group in opposition to the mayor. Photo Credit: Chuck Fadely

The Glen Cove parks department has rescinded a permit for a political opponent of Mayor Reginald Spinello to hold a picnic in a city park, a move some residents view as a violation of his constitutional rights and city officials say is to preserve the tranquillity of Morgan Memorial Park.

In response, the permit applicant, Jack Vilella, moved Saturday’s picnic to a county park, Garvies Point Museum and Preserve. The event is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m.

Vilella insisted that the picnic is a civic event open to all and isn’t intended to organize opposition to Spinello or to the giant waterfront redevelopment the mayor supports and Vilella opposes. Online postings for the picnic say topics include “changing Glen Cove from the inside out.”

Postings are titled “Glen Cove Uniting,” which is similar to Glen Cove United, the political grouping of former Councilman Tony Gallo, Spinello’s 2015 and potential 2017 mayoral election opponent.

Darcy Belyea, the city’s director of parks and recreation, said Vilella initially was granted a permit last month for the city park. But Belyea said Vilella was “deceptive” in applying for the permit and didn’t mention the picnic’s political nature. After the event’s purpose became clear, the permit — which was for 25 to 50 people — was rescinded, she said.

Vilella said the permit application was not deceptive and said its withdrawal was an attempt by Spinello to squelch opposition. In an interview, the mayor said he had no involvement in the decision.

City Attorney Charles McQuair said Morgan Park has never hosted political events, which would breach a 1932 trust agreement that requires the park be “a place for quiet rest and recreation.”

The trust was created by tycoon J.P. Morgan, who purchased the land and then leased it to the city for 999 years.

Eric M. Freedman, a constitutional law professor at Hofstra University, said the city may have violated Vilella’s First Amendment free-speech protections.

Glen Cove would have a stronger legal argument if there were a pre-existing policy against political events — although blanket prohibitions of political activities also may be unconstitutional, Freedman said.

“The involvement of the trust is not going to shield them from the First Amendment claim,” Freedman said.

“The right First Amendment course would be to grant this guy’s permit and come up with some neutral rule for the future rather than incurring the suspicion that they are denying him [a permit] for viewpoint-based reasons,” he said.

Also, Freedman said Vilella wasn’t required to specify the reason for the picnic on his permit application.

McQuair said that, absent a permit, the trust and city law reserve the park for residents of Glen Cove and Locust Valley and Vilella was inviting people from elsewhere.

“We have no obligation to provide them with a venue,” he said.

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