The Southeast town board is back at the drawing board after a previous sign ordinance was struck down as unconstitutional about three years ago.
During a town board meeting last Thursday, town board members discussed how they could tweak the signage law to prevent overcrowding of signs, specifically along town highways and right-of-ways. On the heels of the November election, which saw signs all over town, Southeast Supervisor Tony Hay noted this was a “bad year” for political signs
A law that was crafted and enacted several years ago was challenged by resident Carla Marin and US District Judge Kenneth Karas found the law to be unconstitutional because it regulated political speech. In 2011, Marin refused to take a sign down from her private property, which was on a town right- of-way, five days after a primary, which eventually led to the legal fight.
“Every law is good until it’s challenged,” Hay said. “Ours happened to be challenged.”
The town was sued because a politically based sign on private property was left up for a longer period of time than allowed, town attorney Willis Stephens said. Even though the plaintiff who received a summons was never convicted or forced to pay a fine, she still filed a civil rights challenge against the town, citing the 1st amendment. He said the judge in the Marin case ruled that the town was attempting to regulate content.
Once the judge in the case dissected the law, it was a “paper tiger” going forward, Stephen said.
Stephens suggested the town “go back to the drawing board” and he could explore what other towns have done that withstood any legal challenges. He said he doesn’t see why the town can’t prohibit all signs on town right-of-ways and highways.
“You’re consternation is the proliferation of political signs during the crazy season as we like to call it,” Stephens said, referring to campaign season.
The town could craft a law that dictates how long a sign can stay up for and how big the sign can be, Stephens said. A committee could be formed, which the town board will discuss at a future meeting.
Councilwoman Lynne Eckardt said up until this year, she thought residents had done a good job self-regulating the signs that they put up around town. For the most part, residents have been sensible when and why they put signs up, she said.
Peter Bell, a Patterson resident, said Southeast has done a good job of regulating the number of signs and how long they stay up in the fall. In Patterson, Bell said the number of signs was “horrific” this election season with one corner in the town having about 150 signs overall.
“Unfortunately there will be winners and losers in this,” Bell said once a new sign law is put into place.
There are still a few signs still up from this past election, mostly from judicial candidates that don’t live in the county.
“Ironically the judges are always the worst offenders,” Eckardt said. “Always.”