Election in Betterton enlivened by a controversy over the regulation of signs

October 01, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

BETTERTON -- It was Paula Bone's first fling at politics. And she says it will be her last.

Make no mistake, Mrs. Bone is no political animal. She enjoys her garden and volunteers at a hospice. It would never cross her mind to schmooze, cajole, backslap, logroll, obfuscate, equivocate or, heaven forbid, run for office.

But Mrs. Bone did put up a hand-painted political sign in her yard: "Frank S. Puleo for Mayor" in this Saturday's town election here.

And that was enough to stir up Betterton, a tranquil bayside town that once drew steamers full of Baltimoreans to its crab houses, dance halls and nettle-free waters but now doesn't have so much as a sandwich for sale.

The issue is this: When Mrs. Bone erected her sign, the town planning commission ruled that under its two-year-old zoning ordinance, she needed a $25 permit.

"Any issue in a small town is a big issue when you only have a population of 373," said town clerk Margo Turner. But the big issues in Betterton usually involve the installation of new water meters or maintenance of the town park, not the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

A few days after Mrs. Bone put up her sign last month, family members received a letter from the planning board's lawyer, G. Mitchell Mowell:

"The Betterton Planning Commission has become aware of your placement of a political sign on your property. Please either remove this sign immediately or obtain a permit from the Zoning Administrator. Thank you for your cooperation."

Mrs. Bone was stunned.

"I thought, 'Gee whiz, what in the world have I done?' I don't like to break the law. I like Mr. Puleo but I'm not going to pay $25 to put a sign up," she said. "I was in the wrong, and I guess they had every right to send the letter."

Mr. Puleo, who was elected mayor four years ago but resigned in 1988 because he "couldn't get no cooperation" from the town council, thought otherwise.

"The mayor and a couple of people on the zoning board didn't want me around. It was spite work more than anything," said the 69-year-old retiree from the Pennsylvania highway department. "This is a small town. When you get a small town, this is what you run into. I never heard of anything like that and nobody else has."

But Mayor Carolyn Sorge, a teacher and Betterton native who has held the $1,200-a-year job since Mr. Puleo quit, and zoning administrator Roger Campbell insisted the letter about Mrs. Bone's sign was not politically motivated.

"I was following the ordinance, that's all I can go by," Mr. Campbell said. "Zoning rules are rules. That was the only sign in violation."

He said he later sent letters to three other residents who put up political signs for candidates in Kent County races. He said all the recipients removed the signs as requested.

"It's a very thankless job," Mr. Campbell said. "You don't get paid for it. You don't even get expenses. I have half the people in town mad at me because I tell them you need a permit. That's what you get for trying to abide by the rules."

Mr. Mowell, the lawyer, said Betterton's sign requirements were "just sort of copied" from nearby Chestertown's zoning ordinance. But the restrictions on political signs aren't enforced in Chestertown, a town official there said.

Mayor Sorge said Betterton was merely attempting to enforce its zoning rules equitably, but added it was an "oversight" to include political signs among those requiring a $25 permit.

Last Tuesday, Mayor Sorge and the Betterton council called a special meeting and eliminated the $25 fee. After the election, Mrs. Sorge said, the town will amend the zoning ordinance -- a 90-day process -- to exempt political signs.

However, since the ordinance could not be amended in time for Saturday's election, a permit is still required to put up a political sign.

"We put a Band-aid on a mistake we had made," Mrs. Sorge said. "I feel the First Amendment does allow for free speech, and that's why we had an emergency meeting and changed the permit fees."

Mrs. Bone's sign is stowed in a corner of her garage, and she doesn't plan to put it up again. Mr. Puleo has sprinkled "Puleo for Mayor" signs along the highway just outside the town limits. On Thursday afternoon, Sharon Sutton, whose husband, Donald, is running for council, became the first person to pick up a permit application since the special meeting. "We're just planning to put one sign in our yard," she said.

"I guess it's OK," she said of the permit process. "I hadn't thought much about it."

Others who follow zoning and free speech issues were surprised that Betterton required a permit for political signs. "I think it's extremely unusual," said Gail Owings, Kent County planning director. "This is definitely a new one."

Jim Peck, research director for the Maryland Municipal League, said many town ordinances are "silent on political signs," but that he hadn't heard of a similar brouhaha elsewhere.

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