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Council curbs curb on roadside signs

Political campaign signs will still be OK along roadsides, in other public rights of way.

Like weeds appearing along the highway and Winslow sidewalks, political signs sprout up in public spaces with no one’s permission.

And, despite the protests from some home and business owners, those knee-high heralds of the campaign season will do so still.

The City Council on Wednesday voted down a proposal that would have required the sowers of signs to obtain permission from property owners before planting signs on neighboring public rights-of-way.

“This is poor legislation,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch, who voted against the measure. “This legislation gives public property to private property owners.”

The proposed change to the city’s sign ordinance failed in a 4-3 vote.

Knobloch and others bristled at the notion of handing private property owners the authority to dictate who can post political signs at roadsides and rights-of-way.

But Councilman Bob Scales, who championed the measure, said changing the city’s sign ordinance was necessary to prevent the “aggressive planting” witnessed in 2005.

That year, local political activist Jim Olsen, then serving as mayoral candidate Will Peddy’s campaign manager, staked hundreds of blue and yellow signs along city rights-of-way.

They popped up outside the police station, in front of the public library, in grassy patches near private homes and even planting boxes outside Winslow businesses.

The signs were harvested just as quickly as they were planted by business and home owners unhappy with the unwanted advertisements or not wishing to give the impression they supported Peddy, a longtime city employee who was fired shortly after the campaign for lying on his resume and other infractions.

Olsen noted each of the 271 damaged or stolen signs, filing more than 20 theft reports with Bainbridge police.

“Residents were removing signs, there numerous police reports and people came to the City Council to complain,” said Scales. “It was a mess.”

Scales admitted that most candidates ask permission of nearby businesses or home owners before planting signs, but not all campaigns are as polite.

“If everybody behaved themselves then we don’t have a problem,” he said. But some “try to impose...and that’s the situation we had.”

Others on the council feared the change could cause legal headaches for the city, especially if the adjacent property owner refuses one candidate but welcomes another in the right of way.

“Suppose one candidate from the Socialist Workers Party gets one (near their property),” said Councilman Jim Llewellyn. “Then a Libertarian comes to put his sign in and is refused permission by the property owner. I smell a lawsuit there.”

Olsen said he was pleased the council rejected the proposed changes.

“Their vote is a clear victory for political free speech and the Constitution,” he said Friday. “It’s the people’s right-of-way and we should not have to play ‘mother may I’ with property owners.”

While their votes were well placed, the driving motivation was less noble, he added.

“The City Council made the correct vote but...they were not trying to uphold the sanctity of free speech. It was the specter of lawsuits they feared.”

It was a well placed fear, Olsen added.

“I’m pleased the council didn’t pig pen on this,” he said. “Because there would be lawsuits.”

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