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Jefferson County approves resolution regulating its official seal

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WATERTOWN — The seal of Jefferson County is fairly simple. Beneath a set of scales, a tree, anvil, pick, shovel and ship adorn a shield. Fiat Justitia — Latin for “let justice be done” — is inscribed on a ribbon under the shield with the date of the county’s incorporation, 1805.

What is more complicated is how the seal is used.

A dispute has arisen over the inclusion of the seal in correspondence from New York state regarding the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013. The use of the seal in these documents implies endorsement of the legislation by the county government, according to those who oppose the SAFE Act. The Jefferson County Board of Legislators passed a resolution last year opposing the law, which is widely unpopular in the north country.

Unauthorized use of the seal is now a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine per violation or $25 per copy, whichever is greater.

The issue surfaced after Jefferson County Clerk Gizelle J. Meeks returned from a recent meeting of county clerks. The clerks had become concerned that their county seals were being displayed prominently along with information about the SAFE Act, giving the impression that the legislation was being endorsed by their counties, according to Ms. Meeks.

Ms. Meeks brought her concern to the board, which took up the matter for consideration in late March.

On Tuesday, following testimony from five residents, the Jefferson County Board of Legislators unanimously passed a resolution enacting a local law establishing parameters for prosecuting those who misrepresent their association with the county.

Under the bill’s terms, county officers and employees, along with justices of the Supreme Court, County Court and Surrogate’s Court, would be authorized to use the seal on official business documents. All others would have to apply to the county for the use of the seal.

The seal is defined in the law as “the official instrument evidencing the consent, approval and participation of the County of Jefferson in the agreement or business contained in the document to which the seal is attached.”

“I’m very pleased and optimistic that this will become the first law of 2014,” said County Legislator Jeremiah J. Maxon, R-Adams, before voting commenced. “I’m concerned that our consent as a county would be given not just to the SAFE Act but in any regard. That consent can only be given by us. This law will allow us to defend our emblems, our seal and our consent.”

County Attorney David J. Paulsen said the protections provided to the seal did not fall under federal copyright law.

“We’re not concerned with large-scale misuse of the seal. If we were, we would have gone down the copyright path. We’re looking at a fraudulent, forgery kind of thing,” Mr. Paulsen said. “If you copy a document with the seal on it, that would not be an example of a violation of the law.”

According to Ms. Meeks, as of March 30, 42 other counties in the state have taken the measure of protecting their seals by passing resolutions or local laws outlining how the instrument may be used.

How the state will react to the trend remains to be seen.

“We passed this local law. It’s illegal to do it without our permission. We’ll say to the state, ‘You don’t have our permission,’ and see what happens,” Mr. Paulsen said.

In other business Tuesday, the Board of Legislators voted to approve spending $25,000 to conduct a “true market study” at Watertown International Airport to determine who used the airport and how better to market the area as both a travel hub and a destination.

The money for the study will come from the county’s occupancy tax fund, which comes from a tax on visitors who stay in hotel, motel and bed-and-breakfast rooms in the county. By law, the money must be spent on tourism promotion.

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