Crime Scenes: Voting done, but campaign signs still up

Candidate signs proliferated along roads

September 15, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

On York Road near the entrance to St. Joseph Medical Center, the blue-and-yellow sign promoting Todd Huff for Baltimore County Council is teetering on wobbly two-by-fours.

The Ehrlich sign nearby toppled two days ago, but at least the name of the Republican gubernatorial candidate is face up in the grass. Pity the incumbent judges, whose sign also fell but landed against a brick retaining wall, their names obscured.

Voting finished Tuesday and the results are in, or mostly in, and the roadside campaign signs now resemble litter. When should the signs be removed?

"Hopefully today," said Rich Hartman, a recruiter for Echelon Service Co., a technical job placement business that occupies what used to be a large red-brick private home on York Road.

His company gave permission for the signs to go up, and Hartman thinks vandals tore them down a couple of days ago. He contacted campaign workers to clean up the mess. "I don't know who is supposed to do it," he said. "I don't know if we should or them. I know it looks like an eyesore, and for the neighbors' sake, we should take care of it."

But if you don't like the signs, don't call the police. And don't call your local zoning officer. It's simply not a crime to put up a sign on private property, and federal courts have severely restricted the regulation of signs on public property.

The campaign signs that many complain add to blight and distract motorists could, theoretically, stay up forever.

Three years ago, a federal judge ruled that a Baltimore County law that forbade campaign signs from being displayed more than 45 days before an election violated the right to free speech. But a federal judge ruled lastt month that the county could enforce size limits on signs.

The bottom line is that government can regulate signs themselves but cannot regulate what the signs say, and cannot create special rules meant only for campaign signs.

The judge's ruling in 2007 put dozens of laws and regulations into doubt throughout the state. Assistant Attorney General Sandra Benson Brantley wrote a letter in June that says local laws setting limits on the time campaign signs can be displayed are unconstitutional.

So what about the city ordinance that says campaign signs must be removed within 30 days of an election? Or the Anne Arundel County rule that says they must be gone within a week of polls closing? Or similar laws in Carroll, Howard and Harford counties?

The laws might still be on the books, but Brantley warned in an interview that local officials "shouldn't be enforcing" them.

It's up to the candidates to decide when they no longer care whether a person speeding up York Road recognizes a name.

"The assumption is that most people are happy to start removing signs," said Don Mohler, a spokesman for the Baltimore County executive. "When the election is over, folks get rid of them. But of course, if they choose to, they can keep their signs up. Most people don't want to."

But there are always people who forget. The last chore a losing candidate wants to do is drive around picking up signs.

A candidate for a Baltimore County Council seat, Vicki Almond, agreed in an interview earlier this month that "the signs, though irritating for some, are part of the process."

South Baltimore voter Patti Berkey said she felt inundated by campaign ads and posters, that "there was too much literature," but she conceded she liked seeing "some new names on the signs. It's good that more people are involved."

Still, campaign signs have always been a problem. Vandals frequently knock them over, deface them or destroy them — either as part of a dirty-tricks campaign by rival supporters or simply for kicks. Dozens of signs were damaged this month in Pikesville and Owings Mills, some by having their centers cut out by someone using a razor blade.

No arrests have been made, but Baltimore County police spokesman Lt. Robert McCullough said Wednesday that "we do continue to investigate these incidents."

Meanwhile, we're not done with signs yet. There's still a general election coming up, with at least one hotly contested race — for governor.

The O'Malley and Ehrlich signs will be sticking around.

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