NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Another bad day at the beach could be in store for Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo.
With the 65-foot yacht he's used as a floating billboard sidelined after running aground last weekend off of Charlestown, Trillo now faces thousands of dollars in fines from the town of Narragansett for refusing to take down a large campaign sign on his family's property at Scarborough Beach.
Town officials say the 192-square-foot sign violates both local zoning and a ban on political signs until 60 days before an election. They are fining the Trillo family trust that owns the Scarborough property $500 a day until the sign comes down. If the fines are upheld, the Trillos could be on the hook for $4,500 in penalties, and counting.
But Trillo on Wednesday called the Narragansett flap "political" and vowed not to remove the sign until he's had his day in court.
"It is always about politics. That is where it is coming from," Trillo said. "Because no one seems to be bothered by this but the town."
Trillo acknowledged that the private residential property, occupied by his sister, sits in a zoning district designed for public land that does not allow any private signs.
But he says the town should be working with him to remedy the zoning situation, which was created when his family in 1986 sold the beachfront land known as Olivo's Beach to the state.
Instead, he said, town officials acted "like mafia guys," refusing to compromise on the issue and scaring his elderly sister.
"The thing that really upset me is that they went around the property and told her they were going to rip the sign down, and she was afraid for her safety," Trillo said.
Besides, he said, the town's rules on campaign signs infringe on political speech and are likely unconstitutional.
But Narragansett Town Manager James M. Manni said the town was simply enforcing the rules that every other candidate for town, state or federal office observes and seem to have no problem with.
"The town gave the Trillo campaign every opportunity to remove the sign after it was explained to him it was in violation of several ordinances — and their response was: 'no,'" Manni said.
Even if the Trillo property on Ocean Road weren't in a "public" zoning district, Manni said, the sign would be too large. In residential districts, the maximum size for a yard sign is six square feet, which would be dwarfed by the billboard-like Trillo sign, he said.
And since political signs are banned anywhere in town until 60 days before voters head to the polls, Trillo would have to wait until September before he could advertise for the November general election.
Manni said his office received a complaint about the Trillo sign on July 3. In response, building inspector Anthony Santilli went to the property and spoke to the owners, who agreed to take it down by July 6.
But when that Friday came around, Manni said, the sign remained and the town was referred to the Trillo campaign, which indicated it would stay.
"This is a rare occurrence in Narragansett," Manni said. "Our ordinances are well-known, and the vast majority of people do not violate them."
A hearing on the violation is scheduled for July 19 in Narragansett Municipal Court.
The Scarborough sign controversy is the latest colorful episode in the Trillo campaign's effort to drive name recognition in unconventional ways.
At the start of this month, he began touring Rhode Island beaches in his 65-foot yacht, the Lady M, a large campaign banner lashed to the topsides and patriotic music blaring from speakers.
Manni said the town had received complaints from beachgoers at Narragansett Town Beach about noise from the Lady M, but didn't have any basis to take action.
Last weekend, the Lady M's campaigning was cut short when it hit a rock near the Charlestown Breachway, began taking on water and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard.
And on Tuesday evening, the Rhode Island Board of Elections issued an advisory opinion, which Trillo said he found confusing, on whether parking campaign trucks on corporate property would be considered a campaign contribution.
In the Scarborough sign fight, Trillo may have an ally in the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, which opposes Narragansett's curbs on political advertising.
"The Town of Narragansett's ban on the posting of political signs more than 60 days before an election is blatantly unconstitutional, and we have the court orders to prove it," wrote ACLU of RI Executive Director Steven Brown in an email. "The Town should immediately stop enforcing this ban and rescind it at the earliest possible opportunity."