GOP leader wants Democrat prosecuted for early display of campaign signs

May 15, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The chairman of the county Republican Central Committee wants authorities to criminally prosecute a Democrat he says violated the county's sign law.

Committee Chairman Allan H. Kittleman says Democrat Michael Weal, a candidate for state's attorney, has violated local law by displaying campaign signs at several Ellicott City businesses two months early.

According to Mr. Kittleman's interpretation of the law, campaign signs cannot be displayed until after July 15.

"Please accept this correspondence as my formal request that you investigate Michael Weal's unlawful display of his political campaign signs," Mr. Kittleman said in a May 9 letter to Jim Rawle, the county's sign code administrator.

"After you have confirmed Mr. Weal's clear violation of the Howard County Code, I fully expect that you will refer this matter to the proper officials for criminal prosecution," Mr. Kittleman stated in his letter.

Mr. Rawle was away last week, but his boss -- David M. Hammerman, director of the Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits -- said criminal prosecution is not something the department will pursue.

"If a person is in violation [of the sign law], we notify the person and make the person aware of the condition and ask the person to address the issue," Mr. Hammerman said.

Usually that's all that's needed, he said. The most that usually happens with persistent sign violators is that they are fined $50 or less, Mr. Hammerman said.

In the meantime, Mr. Weal asked Ellicott City merchants Monday to take down his signs. He said he was unaware of the Republicans' complaint until a reporter asked about it.

He said Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo, who is running for re-election, wanted to post some signs in residences and storefronts as well and asked Mr. Rawle for advice.

"Jim told him the law is vague, but he should probably wait," Mr. Weal said. "I decided, just to be safe, I would wait, too. I didn't do this to challenge the sign law."

Mr. Hammerman said he will not handle Mr. Kittleman's complaint differently from any other complaint. He held up Mr. Kittleman's letter and covered the part containing the party logo. "I only read from here down," he said. Mr. Hammerman's boss, County Executive Charles I. Ecker, is a Republican seeking re-election.

Further, Mr. Hammerman is not sure that the law is as unambiguous as Mr. Kittleman says. He has asked the county attorney for an interpretation. "I believe in strict enforcement, and we will take a consistent approach," Mr. Hammerman said. He said he will ask Mr. Rawle to research the issue to see how the county has dealt with it in past elections.

The law appears open to interpretation in two places. The first deals with where signs may be placed. Signs of no more than 9 square feet are allowed in residential districts, and signs of no more than 32 feet are allowed in commercial districts.

Since the law goes on to say that the signs must be on private property no less than 15 feet from the nearest edge of the pavement and no less than 100 feet from the nearest curbed intersection, it appears that the reference is to outside signs.

Three of the signs about which Mr. Kittleman complained were inside, placed in the front windows of a gasoline station, a tavern and a law office. The other three to which he objected were on the exterior walls of a liquor store and an ice cream parlor, Mr. Kittleman said. "If necessary, I will be happy to sign an affidavit detailing the date and times I personally viewed Mr. Weal's political signs at the locations noted," Mr. Kittleman said in his letter.

The other apparent ambiguity is that the law is written permissively. It says signs may be displayed 60 days before and seven days after the election for which they were intended. It does not say signs are not permitted until that time.

Mr. Weal, who has a 27-year association with many Ellicott City business people, said some store owners and homeowners protested against removing the signs, saying that what they put on their inside windows and walls is their business, not the county's. Removal was a violation of their right to free expression, some said.

"I told them it would not be them, but the party and me that would suffer," Mr. Weal said. "I don't want to cause problems for the party or me."

Mr. Weal said he thought the law applied to external signs only.

When confronted with the Republican complaint, Mr. Weal turned philosophical. 'Maybe it's a good thing," he said. "At least people have seen my signs."

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