BANGOR, Maine — At least for the foreseeable future, the city of Bangor isn’t interested in changing its policy on political signs.
For about 20 minutes Tuesday evening, members of a City Council committee debated the merits of creating regulations that would either ban such signs from all public grounds or regulate them. Eventually, they elected to postpone the matter indefinitely.
After some Bangor residents inquired about the size of some of the signs for Bangor City Council candidates last fall — some of which were 3 to 4 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide — the issue was referred to the council’s government operations committee to consider possible regulation.
The committee’s five members asked City Solicitor Norm Heitmann to research potential forms of regulation and any legal issues such regulation would entail.
“Political signs are protected speech under the First Amendment by the United States Constitution,” Heitmann told the three councilors in attendance at Tuesday’s committee meeting. “Currently, political signs are subject to regulations by state statute and city ordinances, and any regulations must be content-neutral.”
Heitmann said that means regulations must be narrowly drawn to serve a “compelling government interest,” such as safety.
“A political sign can’t look like a stop sign or a yield sign for public safety reasons, and it can’t obstruct or block other public safety or informational signs,” Heitmann explained.
A municipality may prohibit the posting of all signs on public property, Heitmann continued, the only exception being a property considered a “traditional public forum,” such as a street. Signs on private property may not be prohibited, but they can be regulated.
“Generally, courts have rejected municipal efforts to directly limit the number of signs,” said Heitmann. “However, courts have upheld regulations that limit the size of yard signs both individually and by total square footage.”
According to former Bangor City Clerk Patti Dubois, the typical campaign lawn sign is 3 square feet. Upon checking with her counterparts in other Maine communities late last year, she learned that size restrictions ranged from 8 square feet to 32 square feet. One municipality had a maximum height restriction of 3½ feet and many cities and towns require that signs not obstruct visibility at intersections.
Heitmann went on to add that municipalities may enact reasonable restrictions on shapes, heights and location of signs, but those restrictions must include reasons, such as interference with public safety.
Councilor Charlie Longo asked fellow councilors Patricia Blanchette and James Gallant what they thought about an outright ban of political signs on all public grounds, and neither was supportive of the idea.
Silver Road resident Steve Sleeper, who said he made more than a dozen signs for last November’s elections, then came up for public comment. He told the councilors he thought they were debating a “solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist” and added that he thought putting limits on signs was “a really bad idea.”
Longo then made a motion to postpone the matter indefinitely and Gallant seconded it, effectively killing any further action on potential regulation.