I Hate Signs … But We Are Where We Are

You don’t like the proliferation of campaign yard signs? Neither do I.

For decades, Mequon had relatively simple ordinances about campaign yard signs. No signs on public property. Campaigners needed permission before posting a sign on private property. Signs had to be a certain size, and there were limits to how many signs that could be posted on a property. Signs needed to come down after elections. There were scofflaws who broke these ordinances, but they generally worked okay. Most people were happy. They had a means for expressing their preferences.

Years ago, it came to the city’s attention that court decisions called into question some of the rules. At the advice of the city attorney, the city stopped telling people to take down large signs and stopped telling people how many signs they could put on private property. However, the city maintained the rest of the rules. I reminded people of the basic rules last year before the presidential election in this post.

People who are “aghast” and “shocked” that there are large signs posted during this election either were not here for prior elections, were not paying attention or, frankly, are being dishonest. There have been large signs at every election going back to at least the 2016 presidential election (I believe even earlier). There have been about 10 elections (or more) during this period. There were large Trump and Biden signs just last year. Some of the people now complaining about the large signs worked on those campaigns.

When I was elected mayor, I asked that the city put the issue of campaign signs on the list of items to be addressed by staff and the common council. It took a while, but they began that process earlier this year (well before the recall petition started).

After that, the recall petition started, and the petition signers decided to collect signatures on public property. There were many complaints, but the city took no steps to stop them. The city recognized they had the constitutional right to do so.

But they also posted signs while collecting signatures. Based on the ordinances described above, the city attorney advised that such signs were not allowed. It was the same advice given a year earlier with the Evers recall, and the same position the city had taken for more than a decade, including with the Walker and Darling recalls.

I therefore posted this on July 16, 2021.

One of the recall organizers engaged the Wisconsin Institute of Law and
Liberty (WILL) and threatened to sue the city. The city engaged outside, unbiased counsel to advise the city. The city then stopped enforcing the ordinance regarding public property due to a variety of defects in the ordinances.

As a result, the city learned that the Supreme Court has ruled that political signage cannot be treated differently than other signs. A separate ordinance category for political signs is, in the Court’s opinion, unconstitutional. But that is what the city has – a political signage ordinance. Sec. 62-8(a)(4) of the Mequon Code of Ordinances. The city came to the realization that it cannot enforce any of the political sign ordinance.

So, until the sign code is redrafted, the police department and the city inspectors will not be enforcing the political sign ordinance except:

  •  If a sign poses a safety hazard. The police department has already had one homeowner move a sign.
  •  If someone posts a sign on private property (e.g., homes, businesses, empty fields, houses of worship, entrances to subdivisions, private golf courses, etc.) without permission.
  •  If someone posts a sign during polling hours on any public property on election day within 100 feet of an entrance to a building containing a polling place. That is prohibited by state law.

If the city took any other action, it would be subject to lawsuits by either the pro-recall or the pro-school board campaigns, or both. The city cannot enforce an illegal ordinance. Instead, the city is going to follow the law and the guidance of its attorneys to come to a legal and proper result.

The common council is going to be asked tomorrow evening (October 12, 2021) to approve the engagement of an attorney to advise the city on corrections to the sign code. It took a little time to find someone with expertise to advise the city. More importantly, the city administrator, city attorney and I wanted to find someone who is not involved locally so that he or she would not be accused of skewing their advice to one group or another. We believe we found that person. In case you are wondering, I do not know him.

If you believe that this has been skewed based on my or anyone else’s preferences regarding this recall election, you are sadly mistaken and are seeing this through your own partisan lenses. I trust that most people, even if they do not like all the signs, will understand.

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