TOPSHAM — A free-speech debate erupted Monday after the town removed political campaign signs it said were planted illegally on public property.
State law allows political signs to be placed in a public right of way six weeks before an election. But Topsham’s local ordinance reduces the window to just 30 days, Town Manager Rich Roedner said Tuesday.
The signs removed Monday were put up outside the 30-day limit, Roedner said.
“Over the course of last week, we started to get complaints about the number of signs that were being placed early, and questioning whether we were going to enforce our ordinance,” he said Tuesday.
“… So we made the decision yesterday that we were going to enforce the ordinance, and I instructed our Public Works Department to take the signs out of the public right of way, which is what they did.”
Generally speaking, the right of way is 25 feet from the center line of a road, and 13 feet from the edge of pavement, the manager said. That space often encompasses land that private citizens care for and believe they own, he added – although technically it is still public property.
“That’s where I think we’re getting into a lot of confusion,” Roedner explained. “People put a sign out (and think) ‘oh, I put it on my yard.'”
Roedner said he did not know how many signs were removed. Some campaigns had already retrieved their signs from the town on Tuesday. The signs can be put back on public property on Sunday, Oct. 5.
Signs on private property, outside of a right of way, are not governed by the state or town laws, and were not removed, Roedner said. Only the right of way triggers the restriction, he said.
“Our directions were clear,” Roedner said. “‘Take them out of the right of way.’ We had no intent, no desire, no inclination to take them off from private property.”
Zach Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, disagreed with Roedner, and said the town’s action was unconstitutional.
“Political signs are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution,” Heiden said Tuesday, adding that his office had been getting calls that day about Topsham’s action.
“If the government is going to come onto people’s property and take people’s signs, they’d better have a very compelling reason for doing so. And I haven’t seen one in this case yet. … Local governments can’t silence political speech.”
Heiden added that “perhaps … the town manager is confused about what a right of way is. … Your lawn is not public.”
There are laws relating to easements, which allow utilities on a property, “but that doesn’t mean that’s public land,” Heiden said. “That’s still private property.”
James Temple, a homeowner whose signs were removed, said common courtesy would have dictated notifying residents before taking action.
“It would have been better time spent if they had patched the potholes in the road or mowed the grass that grows up through the sidewalk,” Temple, of 14 Coville Road, said in an email. “Instead it was decided that a good use of tax dollars was to remove signs from what most people would consider their property. At worst they could have pulled the sign, attached a copy of the ordinance or explanation, and set the sign on our porch.”
Reactions were mixed Tuesday from the three candidates for the Board of Selectmen.
“We’re a small community,” former Town Clerk Ruth Lyons said. She suggested that notifying people of the ordinance by phone would have been a better way to handle the issue than confiscating the signs. “People, where I had signs, didn’t even know what was going on. They thought people were out stealing them.”
“Politics are such a sensitive issue anyway, and when you just go grab something, it doesn’t leave a good taste,” she added, noting that she never in her 24 years as a town employee saw political signs removed by the town.
Lyons said she understands the right-of-way rule, but said some signs outside that zone were apparently removed, too.
Selectman Ron Riendeau, who is running against Lyons and fellow incumbent Selectman David Douglass, said things could have been handled differently.
“I think everybody should have been notified ahead of time, not just send (the public works crew) out to start taking signs down,” Riendeau said.
Douglass, however, said he stands by the ordinance and supported its enforcement, even though some of his signs were removed. The signs had been sorted when he went to the public works office to pick them up, he said.
“(It’s) a learning lesson, but it’s a rule, and it was passed by Town Meeting,” Douglass said. “We … have to live by it, and we have to move on. And if there is a problem with it, then we’ll look at it again through the Town Meeting process, and go from there.”
Concerning the state’s 45-day window versus Topsham’s 30 days, Douglass said he does not “have a big issue” with the town policy.
“I know we all want to get our message out there and get ourselves out there,” he noted. “Is an extra 15 days for Dave Douglass’s name out there going to make someone want to vote for me? … I don’t know if you went 120 days out, if it would make a difference.”
Getting the word out to campaigns will be key to addressing this matter in future elections, Roedner said.
“We’ll try to be ahead of it next year, so that as the campaign is shaping up we can notify the campaigns earlier, that ‘hey, in Topsham, this is the rule,'” he said.
Topsham’s removal of political signs in the public right of way sparked a free-speech debate Monday. The signs were taken to the Public Works garage, above, where they were sorted. Most had been picked up by campaign officials or residents by Wednesday morning.
Political signs are not allowed on public property in Bath. Signs can be erected six weeks before an election and must be removed within a week after the vote, according to city ordinance.
In Brunswick, signs other than those pertaining to highway safety are not allowed on public rights of way. The Town Council voted earlier this year to remove limits on how long political signs can stand, according to Codes Enforcement Officer Jeff Hutchinson.
Political signs in Harpswell can be placed on private property outside public right of way limits any time before an election, according to Town Clerk Roz Knight. Campaign signs can go up within the right of way no earlier than six weeks before an election, and must be removed one week after the election.
— Alex Lear