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Campaign signs may be curbed

The council moves to require permission from property owners.

The City Council took steps Wednesday toward amending the city’s political sign ordinance, after a flood of complaints during the recent primary election.

“Some people think the city is too heavy-handed, while others believe there is too little enforcement,” said Councilman Bob Scales, who initiated the proposed changes. “During the 19 months that I have been on the City Council, I have heard many complaints about how the city enforces its code.”

Scales hopes to add language to the code that requires the permission of abutting property owners before a political sign can be posted in a city right-of-way.

The councilman bases the legality of his proposed amendment on a state Supreme Court Case in which the City of Tacoma successfully argued its interests 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.”

Conflicts on the island arose when mayoral candidate Will Peddy’s campaign manager posted yard signs in front of businesses and homes without permission from nearby owners or residents.

The signs were frequently taken down, spurring the manager, Jim Olsen, to complain to police. Residents and business owners found that, indeed, they had violated city code by pulling up the signs.

An earlier amendment, passed in August, made an exception for political signs, permitting their placement in right-of-ways under certain circumstances. Other signs, including those for garage sales, soccer games, lost pets or pancake feeds, are still considered illegal when posted on utility poles or city property.

Scales hopes this most recent amendment to the sign ordinance will clarify rules and lead to fewer conflicts. He also called for greater public education.

“Some residents viewed any tampering with the signs to be a crime while others viewed signs that were placed in front of their homes as litter that they had the right to remove,” he said. “If the public was aware of the city’s position, I doubt that so many people would have written letters to the Review openly admitting to removing political signs.”

Linda Groff of Fletcher Bay Road was one resident who admitted in a letter published in the Review to taking down a Peddy sign near her driveway. She felt the sign’s placement near her home implied support for Peddy.

After a complaint from the Peddy campaign, police ordered Groff to return the sign to the right-of-way and she was added to a list of suspects questioned when other signs disappeared.

Groff said she supports Scales’ amendment as “recognition of the rights of private land owners. But she wants the city to go further.

“On the whole, (the amendment) is good,” Groff said. “But I’d like the city to acknowledge that what it did during the primary season was wrong, against the Constitution and that many, many people’s rights were violated.”

Ordinance changes would also reduce the time candidates can leave signs up after an election from 10 days to seven.

“The purpose of the sign code is to ensure public safety and prevent the proliferation of visual pollution on the island,” Scales said. “When enforcing the sign code, the city should take these goals into consideration.”

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