Battle over political signs may reignite

Permission of property owners can be required, one councilman says.

Each morning, Jeff Shepherd dutifully pulled out the blue and yellow campaign sign that sprouted in the flower bed fronting his downtown bakery.

“We always try to be apolitical,” said Shepherd, a co-owner of Blackbird Bakery in Winslow Way. “The sign was so close to our business it implied we supported one person over another.”

A stack of signs piled up near the bakery’s back door, until one day Shepherd was caught red-handed.

“I was essentially accused of stealing,” he said of his meeting with Jim Olsen, campaign manager for Will Peddy’s failed mayoral bid. “I said I wasn’t stealing anything and said ‘here, they’re right over there. You can have them.’”

But Olsen, the Peddy campaign’s chief propagator of signs, also had a surprise: a copy of the city’s updated sign ordinance that protects campaign signs in public right-of-ways.

The ordinance replaced an earlier version that raised constitutional issues by restricting signs in public rights-of-way, which Olsen successfully challenged during the school district tech levy campaign.

With the law on the campaign’s side, Shepherd helped Olsen stake the signs back in the flower bed.

But despite the new protections – complete with a possible $5,000 fine and a year in jail for taking down campaign signs – some islanders treated the recent crop of signs as little more than pernicious weeds, uprooting them by the hundreds.

For Olsen, pulling up signs represents something much more insidious.

“It was a way to chill the political discourse and was a persistent, non-stop intimidation of the democratic process,” he said. “It’s not a big issue – it’s the only issue.”

Olsen believes many of the 230 signs he reported to Bainbridge police as stolen were targets of a “thuggish fringe” opposed to the Peddy campaign.

Peddy, the city’s code enforcement officer, was the only island candidate to post campaign signs, despite an implicit agreement among other candidates to refrain from a practice some residents consider wasteful or an eyesore.

Fletcher Bay Road resident Linda Groff said she pulled a Peddy sign staked near her driveway – just as she has done with a handful of other signs during previous elections.

But this time, Groff was called by police and ordered to return the sign, which was technically in a city right-of-way. She was also added to a “suspect” list when other signs disappeared on the island, and was questioned by police at her home.

“I don’t oppose political signs, but I think I should be asked before someone puts it in my yard,” Groff said. “I didn’t know who Peddy was. I didn’t know if I supported him or not. But after all this, I knew I didn’t support him.”

No one has yet been prosecuted for stealing signs during this election season, according to city prosecutor Kevin Hull. He said it’s difficult to prove any of the suspects had intended to “permanently deprive the owner of the signs.”

Groff doubts most residents who uprooted signs aimed to keep them.

“For all I know, there are sign thieves,” she said. “But, based on the sheer numbers of signs that Olsen reported stolen, I would guess that most of them are businesses and landowners removing signs for which they have not been given permission.”

Asking permission before posting a sign sounds like a good idea to Councilman Bob Scales. He plans to initiate a new discussion of the sign ordinance, possibly drafting rules that require the nod of property owners before a sign is staked.

“One problem with the current ordinance is that it was passed very quickly,” Scales said. The earlier version “was unconstitutional, and we needed to make changes before this campaign season started.”

As an alternative, Scales cites a 1993 Washington State Supreme Court ruling that allowed the City of Tacoma to require permission from adjacent property owners before campaigners could put up signs.

Any changes to the Bainbridge ordinance likely won’t be up for council discussion until after November’s election, to avoid altering rules in the midst of the campaign season, Scales said.

Olsen is holding steady and has vowed to keep the Peddy signs up until later this week – the legal posting limit.

He has also continued to file theft reports of the signs, valuing each at $100, which includes “cost, development, delivery and supervision time for the signs as well as time spent completing stolen sign paperwork, routine patrols and follow-up actions on thefts.”

Asked why he continues to file reports over signs past their election purpose, Olsen answered:

“I have a right to free speech, and I will not be intimidated.”

For residents itching to yank signs down on aesthetic grounds, Olsen advises “self control and for people to avert their eyes a little bit. I’ll file reports until it’s time to take them down.

“That’s my right in this democracy. People have to get over it.”

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