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Political signs stir up more debate

Political signs pepper the lawn outside the Bainbridge police station. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Political signs pepper the lawn outside the Bainbridge police station.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

How much access to public rights of way for campaign signs?

A weakening sun. Turning leaves. The return of school buses to island roads.

All are subtle signs that fall – and with it campaign season – is fast approaching.

Less subtle than those signs was the campaign sign driven into the soil two years ago, near the roadside in front of Dan and Linda Groff’s Fletcher Bay home.

Bemused, Linda removed the sign and stashed it in her shed. She did the same thing later that year when another sign appeared. And she would do the same today, were it to happen again. For her and her husband, it isn’t about campaign signs.

“It’s about another person substituting their voice for ours,” she said.

Similar sentiments were expressed elsewhere that year when homeowners and businesses were said to have removed some 271 campaign signs posted by islander Jim Olsen, who at the time was campaign manager for mayoral candidate Will Peddy.

Upset by the signs’ removal, Olsen fought back. He reported the signs stolen, and property owners in some cases were asked by police to put them back up against their wishes.

Olsen was further vindicated in May of this year, when the City Council rejected an ordinance – by a 4-3 vote – that would have required permission from abutting property owners before campaigners could post signs in public right of ways.

Now, as signs of fall and signs from Olsen have again begun to color the island landscape, the debate over campaign signs is back.

The City Council at its Sept. 12 meeting will reconsider the rejected sign ordinance – at the request of Councilman Kjell Stoknes, who last time voted against it.

Troubling to some when it was rejected by the council was a phrase in the ordinance regarding the ownership of the property beneath a given right of way. Some councilors wanted to remove the phrase because they feared it would lead to confusion and legal disputes.

“At the time I was uncomfortable with (removing it),” Stoknes said. “But it’s the right thing to do.”

So it will get another look. Only a councilor who voted against an ordinance can move to reconsider it.

The ordinance to be reviewed is the same one shot down earlier, though council members can amend the language if they choose.

Olsen hasn’t changed his mind about the issue.

“If what they’re proposing is the same thing they rejected earlier, it’s unconstitutional and reprehensible,” he said. “It’s absolutely farcical.”

Requiring campaigners to seek permission from abutting property owners before posting signs violates the First Amendment, he said. He believes – and current city law supports the notion – that public right of ways should be open to campaign advertising.

That became the case in 2005, when an amendment to the city’s old sign ordinance opened the door to the practice, provided the signs are of a political nature, are of a certain size and don’t impede sight lines or cause a hazard to pedestrians or traffic. They also must be removed within a certain time following elections.

Precedent elsewhere in the state usually traces back to a 1993 state Supreme Court decision, in which it was stated that a city’s interest in “aesthetics and traffic safety are sufficient to justify reasonable, content-neutral regulation of the non-communicative aspects of political signs, such as size, spacing, and consent of the private property owner.”

That decision upheld the disputed legality of the sign ordinance in Tacoma, which requires permission from abutting property owners before signs can be posted. The Tacoma ordinance was used as a model by the City of Bainbridge as it crafted the legislation that failed in May.

The Groffs are among those who feel their free speech is being stifled by the presence of unwanted political signs. They say that signs in front of a home or business imply that the property owner supports the candidates or issues being advertised, when under the current law, that isn’t necessarily the case.

As owners of the land on which the city right of way sits, they believe should have the final say over what signs are posted there.

“James Olsen can walk all day up and down the right of way in his Will Peddy T-shirt if he wants,” Linda said. “But he can’t put up a sign on my property without asking.”

The latter use, she said, isn’t a legal entitlement on a city right of way that sits atop private land.

Olsen, meanwhile, said he’s being unfairly targeted by the city, which recently removed some of the signs he placed around town. The signs were removed on the grounds that they weren’t endorsing a specific candidate or issue, as required by the existing ordinance, according to email correspondence between Olsen and the city’s Code Enforcement Officer Meghan McKnight.

“What were they, pizza signs?” Olsen said. “Garden in Bloom signs? We could walk outside of City Hall right now and fill up a pickup truck with non-conforming signs. But city employees should have better things to do.”

Olsen has since added language to his signs – endorsing council candidate Curt Winston – to make them compliant.

Neither Winston nor fellow South Ward candidate Kim Brackett are using political signs in their respective campaigns, but Winston said he thinks free speech should be the decider.

“If someone put a Brackett sign in front of my house I don’t think I’d be too happy about it,” he said. “But it’s not illegal.”

Central Ward candidates aren’t using campaign signs either. Candidate John Waldo said he would support an ordinance like the one that failed in May

His opponent, Bill Knobloch, voted against it, but said political signs are “totally unnecessary” in a community of this size.

“The media exposure alone is more than enough,” he said.

That’s true, Olsen said, for incumbents like Knobloch, who are regularly shown on television and written about in newspapers.

“But what about the lowly candidate who steps forward and doesn’t have that advantage,” he said. “How does someone get the word out? Rather than embrace democracy and educate people about political signs, the city wants to box them out and make them illegal.”

Councilman Bob Scales, who voted in favor the ordinance in May, hopes it will pass this time.

“If we didn’t have people abusing the current ordinance and placing signs all over the place where people don’t want them, we wouldn’t need to make the change,” he said, adding that the theft reports and controversy surrounding the issue have finally reached a breaking point. “It’s ridiculous – we can’t keep doing this each election cycle.”

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