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Date of Issue: July 09, 2008

Political signs go up prematurely; some come dow

Sign regulations
Regulations for political signs differ from one jurisdiction to the next in Manatee County. Signs, according to a review of local codes, can go up:
30 days prior to an election in Anna Maria.
60 days in Bradenton.
No prior limit in Bradenton Beach.
45 days in Holmes Beach.
60 days in unincorporated Manatee County.
60 days in Palmetto.

A sign for John Chappie, candidate for the District 3 county commission seat, stands outside the West Coast Surf Shop in Holmes Beach. The mayor said the candidate's signs could remain despite being placed two weeks before allowed under the city's sign ordinance. The mayor invited incumbent Jane von Hahmann to put up her signs last week. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

A couple of candidates in the Aug. 26 primary prematurely planted political signs in Holmes Beach and Anna Maria last week.

In Anna Maria, John Chappie’s signs for the District 3 county commission race and signs for school board candidate David Miner were required by code enforcement officer Gerry Rathvon to come down.

“If we’re not in compliance, I apologize,” Miner said July 2.

Chappie said he removed his signs within an hour after a final interpretation of Anna Maria’s code.

Chappie’s signs also were placed in Holmes Beach before the code allowed, but Mayor Rich Bohnenberger said July 1 that he wanted to allow the signs to stay. He also invited Jane von Hahmann, the incumbent in the District 3 race, to post her signs early.

Questions over the signs began circulating on July 1, when von Hahmann received an inquiry from a concerned citizen who saw Chappie’s signs on the Island and wondered why she hadn’t erected her campaign signs.

Von Hahmann then inquired with Holmes Beach and Anna Maria code enforcement officers.

“When I saw them going up, I was like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here,” said von Hahmann.

“Rules are rules,” von Hahmann said, adding, “I’m not a sign person. For me it’s about substantive debates and forums. It’s about where we’ve been, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.”

Von Hahmann said she was aware of the timetables for the various jurisdictions because she received a fact sheet from the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office in her candidate packet.

The supervisor indicated that signs could go up 30 days prior to an election in Anna Maria, 45 days prior in Holmes Beach and 60 days prior in Bradenton, Palmetto, unincorporated Manatee County and Bradenton Beach.

That sheet, however, contained at least one error. A review of codes last week indicated that Bradenton Beach does not place restrictions on when political signs can go up, but it does require them to come down within five days of an election, said code enforcement officer Wendy Chabot.

Also, apparently Anna Maria’s code, revised two years ago, confused some seeking office and some in city hall.

Miner, who is running against incumbent Harry Kinnan in a countywide race for the District 2 school board seat, said his campaign thought his gold and blue political signs were permissible in Anna Maria as early as last week.

“If all the city attorneys and county attorneys got it together on this issue so there is a consistency, that would be for the benefit of all the governmental interests and the residents’ interests,” Miner said.

Chappie said, “There were three interpretations. It wasn’t clear.… I think they are going to workshop that.”

Anna Maria code enforcement officer Gerry Rathvon said after she received von Hahmann’s telephone call, she reviewed the ordinance and then talked with city officials, including city attorney Jim Dye, on July 1.

On July 2, she received Dye’s final interpretation — that the political signs are classified as temporary signs.

Rathvon said “temporary” signs in the city’s ordinance cannot be placed more than 30 days before an event, in this case, an election.

Based on that timetable, the political signs in Anna Maria went up about 22 days early.

“We will notify the people who have signs out and give them 24 hours to remove them,” Rathvon said July 2. “There’s no fine. I myself was unsure of this and had to go back to the guidelines and the city attorney.”

By July 3, Chappie’s signs were gone in Anna Maria. A few of Miner’s signs, as well as several faded signs for Barack Obama and John McCain, remained in the city, the presidential candidates’ signs placed well ahead of the allowable timeframe for the Nov. 4 election.

Meanwhile, Chappie’s red, white and blue signs remained in Holmes Beach as the July 4 holiday arrived.

The Holmes Beach City Commission adopted a new sign ordinance last fall, the measure stating, “It is the purpose and intent of this article to create a comprehensive and balanced system of sign control that accommodates both the need for a well-maintained, safe and attractive community, and the need for effective business identification, advertising and communication,” the measure states.

Last week, after reviewing the sign ordinance, Bohnenberger said he would let Chappie’s signs stay.

“I think they were put up a few days early and we decided not to press the issue,” Bohnenberger said. “It’s a matter of a couple days, that’s all.…I don’t like to bend the rules, but it’s only a few days.”

Bohnenberger said at first the code enforcement officer thought the signs went up months in advance, believing the race was to be decided Nov. 4.

Rather, the signs went up about two weeks in advance.

“It is the primary election,” Bohnenberger said. “The ordinance dictates 45 days. So, it’s only a couple of days.”

The mayor also expressed some reservations with the sign restrictions.

“We’re going to have to address that code,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort and expense for candidates to put up signs.”

As local officials last week reviewed and reacted to timetables for sign placement in the various jurisdictions, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a general statement to The Islander noting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on political signs.

The high court, in the City of Ladue v. Gilleo in 1994, recognized the signs as “venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.… Signs that react to a local happening or express a view on a controversial issue both reflect and animate change in the life of a community.… Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute.”

The ACLU has challenged ordinances related to political signs in other states, most recently in Virginia and Maryland. In Baltimore, a judge invalidated a 45-day restriction on political signs stating that many courts have recognized “the importance of official campaign signs and the message they provide” and ruled them protected speech under the First Amendment.

“Campaign signs in front yards are as much a part of the American political landscape as newspaper editorials, stump speeches and blogs,” said the ACLU’s Kent Willis.

Miner, a Bradenton attorney, said he would comply with the ordinances, but added, “All of these ordinances are suspect.… I do think it is a very restrictive, flawed limitation.… This election is less than 60 days away and it is a very important election.”