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Candidates split on use of signs

At least one rejects an informal pact to keep roadsides clear during the campaign.

In small town politics, yard signs may be as ubiquitous as glad handing, door belling and baby kissing.

But not on Bainbridge Island.

“It’s part of a tradition here not to use yard signs,” said Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, who is seeking re-election this fall. “We can still have good, hearty campaigns but, during the last 15 years, almost all candidates have agreed to not use these signs.”

Kordonowy is asking all local candidates – whether they be for the City Council, the School Board, the Fire Commission or her own office – to refrain from hammering any hip-high political signs during this election season.

She says the signs are wasteful, costly and often turn into roadside litter once ballots are cast. They also tend to steer some races into the muck of dirty politics, including eye-for-an-eye vandalism campaigns.

But Kordonowy’s call comes a little late. One of her challengers, city code enforcement officer Will Peddy, had already dotted the island with his blue and yellow signs shortly after filing for office late last month.

And those signs will likely stay firmly planted in accordance with a broader political tradition, says Peddy’s campaign manager James Olsen.

“This is America,” Olsen said. “And we have a rich tradition in this democracy of letting people know who the candidates are. In America, people do political signs. Darlene Kordonowy saying this is not ‘the island way’ is silly and pretentious.”

So far, Peddy is the lone candidate with signs in his political arsenal.

Other mayoral hopefuls, including Councilman Nezam Tooloee and accountant Michael Berry, have pledged to refrain from using signs in the September primary.

“They just end up as trash anyway,” Berry said. “And I’ve never seen anyone persuaded by a yard sign.”

But persuasion is not necessarily the goal, said Kim Richan, a political strategist for the Seattle-based Moxie Media consulting firm.

“It’s about visibility,” she said. “Yard signs don’t give you a reason to vote, they don’t have a message, they don’t share ideas. They’ve got to be easy to read when you’re whizzing by in your car because nobody’s going to read the fine print under ‘Jane Smith for Mayor.’”

A secondary purpose for yard signs, Richan said, is to galvanize a candidate’s supporters.

“It excites the base of people who already know and love the candidate,” she said. “It gives things a little bit of a buzz.”

Supporters can get carried away by the buzz, as was the case during last November’s local and national elections. Republican signs were spraypainted, Democratic signs were shredded, and vice versa. In the race for a Kitsap County Commission seat, activists on Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap erected anonymous signs disparaging an incumbent with unsubstantiated claims.

“In that commissioner race, some really disrespectful things were said on signs,” Kordonowy said. “There was outright lying on the signs just before the election. Things can get very aggressive and nasty.”

Bad signs

Kordonowy and Olsen were in the middle of some of that nastiness during the recent school district technology levy campaign.

Olsen, an opponent of the levy, staked dozens of homemade signs around Winslow taking issue with the measure’s potential tax burden.

The signs, on Kordonowy’s order, were taken down by, coincidentally, code enforcement officer Peddy.

The city asserted that the signs blocked some right-of-ways and had been the target of citizen complaints. Olsen contested, leading city attorneys to review Bainbridge’s sign codes.

The city, in a letter drafted by planning director Larry Frazier, backed down from the removal and permitted Olsen to reinstall about one-third of the 30 signs.

The City Council followed up with a sign code revision, tightening guidelines for all political signs.

The rules also established a time frame requiring the removal of political signs within 10 days after an election and banned them from all public structures, including utility poles and lamp posts.

Political signage is still permitted in public right of ways, provided it does not obstruct drivers’ views or pedestrian pathways. The new rules restrict sign sizes in these areas to 6 square feet and up to 5 feet in height.

In an effort to clear up post-election litter, the new rules clearly identify campaign directors and candidates as those responsible for the removal of signs.

Olsen characterizes the sign ordinance revision as “rich with irony” and as a “ploy to take the heat off” Kordonowy, but says the changes likely won’t affect his efforts.

“We need to let people know who we are, and we’re going to put up signs,” he said. “Kordonowy has been mayor for four years, she’s frequently in the newspapers, on TV. That’s called access.

“And then she’s got the full weight of her office, with a (large) staff, a million-dollar budget and the police chief on her team.”

While yard signs can boost the profile of a lesser-known candidate, Andy Maron, who spent the 1990s serving as councilman and mayor pro tem, says breaking with island tradition often doesn’t bode well for candidates.

“I remember maybe one or two who put up signs,” Maron said. “And all who did lost.”

Maron was one of a handful of council candidates who formed the initial pact of sign-free campaigns in 1990, just after the entire island came under city jurisdiction.

“We called a meeting and everyone agreed (yard signs) just clutter the highway and are a waste of money,” he said. “And they’re like nuclear weapons: if you’ve got them, then I’ve got to get them.”

But Richens cautions other candidates from a Cold War-themed signs race.

“Yard signs don’t vote,” she said. “The number of signs is not proportionate to the number of votes a candidate will get.”

Instead, Richens advices candidates to focus on more direct “voter contact” strategies, including mass mailings and door belling.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight, but candidates should save their money on signs, redouble their door knocking and just have their volunteers walk four more precincts,” she said. “Do that, and they’ll smoke past any candidate with yard signs.”

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