Lewiston admits campaign sign restrictions might be illegal

Tim Lajoie, a Republican candidate running for Maine House District 74, is challenging a Lewiston ordinance that restricts political campaign signs from being put in place earlier than six weeks before an election.
Daryn Slover | Sun Journal
Tim Lajoie, a Republican candidate running for Maine House District 74, is challenging a Lewiston ordinance that restricts political campaign signs from being put in place earlier than six weeks before an election.
Posted Sept. 11, 2012, at 6:41 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 12, 2012, at 5:42 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — As sure as the leaves will change color and drop from the trees the appearance of political lawn signs is a sure indicator that autumn is upon us.

But unlike the changing foliage, not everybody loves the sight of political campaign signs.

“It’s a pain in the butt,” Dave Hediger said.

Hediger, the deputy director of planning and code enforcement for the city of Lewiston, said invariably the city’s ordinance on when and where campaign signs can go is disregarded or misinterpreted.

City officials remove the signs, hold them for the candidate to pick up and ask them to abide by the city’s ordinances. That ordinance prohibits putting signs up any earlier than six weeks before an election. It also prohibits putting the signs on certain public properties or in the right of way for those properties.

“Usually it’s not the candidates themselves — they are usually well aware of the rules and follow them — but often it’s campaign volunteers,” Hediger said.

He said the city doesn’t go out looking for sign violations but does have to respond when a complaint is made that the city’s ordinance is being violated.

“The majority of the time it’s politically motivated,” Hediger said of sign complaints. “I mean most people wouldn’t know the specific details of when and where signs can go but the people with political interests do.”

But after being challenged by Tim Lajoie, a Republican candidate running for Maine House District 74, the city is going to ease back on enforcing the provision of its code that prohibits signs from going up, even on private property, until six weeks before an election, Hediger said.

Lajoie is running against incumbent state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.

Lajoie said he was told by the city he needed to remove campaign signs that he put up on the lawns of friends, neighbors and supporters on Hogan and Stetson roads.

Lajoie said the signs were on private property but he removed them in good faith just the same. “Except for the few where people told me to leave the sign there and they would take it up with the city,” Lajoie said. “My feeling was, ‘I’m not going to drag my neighbors into this. We will work it out with the city and then we will come back and put our signs up.’”

One of those neighbors, Mike Dubois, a Lewiston-based attorney, said he kept Lajoie’s sign where it was. He said the sign is on his private property and he believes any city ordinance that requires it to come down would be unconstitutional. Dubois even questioned the city’s ability to restrict signs in the public right of way because it selectively applies that law to political signs.

Dubois said all kinds of signs are placed in the public right of way, including real estate signs, contractors advertising their work and even businesses that have permanent signs in the right of way.

“All these signs are within the right of way so singling out just political or candidates’ campaigns signs amounts to unequal protection of the law,” Dubois said. “Especially when you start regulating the content of what can be displayed.”

Lajoie said he would even defend the rights of those running against him.

“It’s not me they are attacking,” Lajoie said. “They are attacking the rights of their neighbors to express their political opinion. This isn’t about protecting the ability to just display my signs. This should apply to everybody, even those I may not agree with.”

On Monday, Hedinger said the city would still enforce its ordinance regarding signs in the public right of way or political signs on public properties where they are prohibited but it wouldn’t be enforcing the time limit on signs on private property.

“That may, in fact, be illegal and we are not going to be taking any signs on private property,” Hediger said. He said the city would be reviewing the ordinance and depending on legal advice, may look to change it.

The city’s ordinance requires campaign signs to be removed within seven days after the election. “And it’s remarkable really,” Hediger said. “It’s rarely ever an issue getting them removed.”

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