Baltimore County residents protest orders to remove campaign signs

Ehrlich supporters contend county actions violate freedom of speech

May 24, 2010|By Bryan P. Sears, Towson Times

Two Baltimore County residents say their rights to free speech have been violated because they were ordered to remove signs supporting Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s bid for governor.

Their concerns have led county officials to suspend acting on anonymous complaints about improper campaign signs.

In one case, Steve Kolbe, who lives on Dulaney Valley Road, had a 32-square-foot sign supporting Ehrlich, the former Republican governor seeking another term, in his yard until removing it to avoid a possible $200-per-day fine or 90 days in jail. "I had no idea I was violating the law," Kolbe said.

County law limits the size of a sign on residential property to 8 square feet.

In another case, an Essex business owner was ordered by code enforcement officials last month to remove his Ehrlich sign after county officials said the it was illegal — because Ehrlich was not an official candidate.

County records show that Don Albright, owner of Albright's Mechanical Services, located in the first block of Marlyn Ave., was ordered to remove the sign April 29, one week before code enforcement officers issued a similar order to Kolbe.

Kolbe said he believes he was singled out because he is an Ehrlich supporter. He also contends the citation was a violation of his freedom of speech.

County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler denied that Kolbe was cited because of his political preference. But she said that the county attorney and chief administrative officer met last week and decided that code enforcement officers will no longer act on the type of anonymous complaints about campaign signs that led to the action against Kolbe.

Kobler also said the county attorney intended to review the regulations that restricts the size of signs on residential property to determine whether it opens the county to potential lawsuits on free speech.

But Kolbe wasn't satisfied. "The law is arbitrary and the county enforcement is also arbitrary," he said.

In the Essex case, Albright and his attorney, Leslie Pittler, said a 32 square-foot sign attached to a building which houses Albright's business was within current zoning laws. Signs of up to 50 square feet are allowed on commercial properties.

A citation and letter issued by code enforcement officer Jerry Chen said the sign was illegal because "a political sign is not permitted if the individual has not officially registered with the state board of elections." Ehrlich has said he is running again, but he has until July to file required paperwork with the elections board.

"There's nothing in the law that allows that," Pittler said. "[Albright] has a right to put up a sign as a matter of constitutional free speech on any issue he wants."

Kobler, the county spokeswoman, said the citation was withdrawn after county attorneys determined that the county could not enforce sign laws on the basis of official candidacy.

A review by Patuxent Publishing of 82 recent sign violations in the county found that more than 60 were written for illegal commercial signs and for restricted electronic changeable-copy signs. Only two were for campaign-related issues; both involved signs for Ehrlich, who represented the county in Congress and the General Assembly.

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