A sign of the times: Towns lifting limits on political placards


In a presidential election year that's also loaded with controversial issues and contested races, communities across the area have witnessed a proliferation of political signs earlier than ever this year.

Though signs on public right-of-ways can legally be removed, city and township officials in Ohio are finding that regulating signs on private property has become more difficult.

Time limits on when property owners can erect political signs and when they must be taken down were shot down by the Ohio Supreme Court in September, 2000. The city of Painesville, - 25 miles east of Cleveland - went to court against a local law firm for posting a political sign on its property in violation of a city law prohibiting the placement of political signs on private property earlier than 17 days before an election.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated freedom of speech.

"Arguably, it's the property owner's freedom of speech to put up the sign whenever they want," Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said. "The argument is, 'That's my choice, that's my freedom of expression, unless I harm traffic or students going

back to school, or become a public nuisance.' "

The decision was a victory for "people in this day and age when there really isn't a whole lot of avenues for the average Joe to get his voice heard," said Gary Daniels, litigation coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which applauded the decision. "One of the best ways to do that is the old-fashioned lawn signs."

The ACLU is looking into similar ordinances that place time limits on political signs in the cities of Kent and Fairlawn. So far, officials in those cities are holding fast to their restrictions.

Mr. Daniels acknowledged that "people, with this election, have a new or renewed interest with politics and campaigning. They're putting up signs in June, July, August, perhaps before."

That has posed a problem for elected officials in some municipalities where citizen complaints about too many political signs, or signs placed in inappropriate locations, prompted ordinances.

"The primary reason for those ordinances is because of the mess that comes from political signs when they don't get cleaned up. They cluster very thickly and are relatively flimsy," said Sheilah McAdams, law director for Maumee.

Maumee found out in 2000 what can happen when a municipality tries to enforce its regulations on such signs. The city cited John Billis, who was running for state representative at the time, for violating a city law that prohibited posting political signs more than 30 days before an election.

Mr. Billis sued the city, and after a brief, telephone pretrial with a judge, the city backed off.

"A lot of people in town would like to see no political signs at all," Ms. McAdams said. "But that is not the way things work in a democracy."

But Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener complained that court involvement has produced a situation where political signs are becoming eyesores.

"Now it's a free for all, with trash in yards, blowing signs. Nobody's paying attention to the time limits this year," Mayor Wagener said.

Some area communities with time restrictions have chosen to abandon them in the wake of the Ohio Supreme Court decision. Toledo amended its sign ordinance in 2001 to eliminate a prohibition against political signs on private property until 60 days before an election.

"Political speech is one of the most highly protected forms of speech under the United States Constitution," Toledo Law Director Barb Herring said. "Because of it being political speech, I really don't think we were enforcing it for quite a while before that [court decision]."

At least three more Lucas County communities are beginning to re-examine their sign ordinances on constitutional grounds. Monclova Township officials - citing an unnaturally large number of signs being posted months before the Nov. 2 election - asked for legal advice from Ms. Bates' office about enforcement. The prosecutor's office cited the state Supreme Court decision, so Monclova officials are revising their law to get rid of language that would place time restrictions on political signs.

The proposed amendment will specify that temporary signs - "other than political signs" - should be removed 10 days after an event ends. Political signs alone are exempt from regulation.

"We found out that it's just not something we can enforce," Monclova Township Zoning Administrator Eric Wagner said. "It's just something where we feel it wouldn't stand up in court if we had to fight it."

On Monday, Waterville Township officials decided they should take similar action, despite the growing number of signs that made them look into the law in the first place.

"This is the first year we've really gotten involved because of the number of signs. It's getting noticeable," Waterville Township Zoning Inspector Eric Gay said. "This year, and the last couple years, the big signs - the 3-by-5s - have been out since July. That's a little early, if you ask my opinion."

The Waterville Township trustees got a visit Monday from Tom Lemon, a principal planner with the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission, who told them that if political signs on private property are not a danger to traffic, there's not much they could do.

"Regulating size and prohibiting placement will generally be found to be acceptable - but time limits for signs on private property have been found to be unconstitutional," Mr. Lemon said, referring to the state decision.

But most Lucas County townships still have some time limitations in their laws covering political signs, Mr. Lemon said. Sylvania Township has not been enforcing that provision while it goes through a legal review.

"We had some political signs going up six months prior to the election," said Sylvania Township Administrator Brad Peebles, who added that he has received a substantial number of citizen complaints about them.

"We sent letters to some candidates. Some signs were removed, some challenged," he said. "We think we owe it to the citizens to look into it a little harder. If in fact it's a freedom-of-speech issue, we could see these signs year-round."

Contact Tad Vezner at:tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.