By Richard L. Gaw
Kennett Township had been pursuing the passage of an ordinance that would have provided guidelines for the use of temporary political campaign signs throughout the township.
Until it decided not to.
The township has pulled Ordinance 210 which, if passed, would have restricted the use of political signs, stipulating that they were not to be placed within the right-of-way of any public street; would have required authorization by the owner of the property they were placed on; could not have exceeded four square feet in size; could not be erected more than 30 days in advance of the election day; and would be required to be removed within five days of election. Further, the law provided for enforcement remedies, and that if any unwanted sign was found on a property, the sign could be sent to the person who erected the sign, if known, as well as to the candidate.
The journey of the ordinance from formation to cancellation began earlier this year, after several residents informed supervisor chairman Michael Elling that they did not like the many political signs being placed throughout the township during the primary election for the seat soon to be vacated by Elling on the Board of Supervisors. The majority of the signage was erected by board candidates Richard Leff and Jim Przywitowski, who are vying for Elling's seat in a general election to take place on Nov. 5.
"There wasnt enough public support for it," Elling said, in explaining the reason for the ordinance's cancellation. "It was controversial. There were comments about its constitutionality, and it just became much easier to cancel."
The issue was discussed at a board work session on June 4, during which Leff questioned the timing of the ordinance. Elling said that "people don't like the numerous signs being placed all over the township." Supervisor Scudder Stevens opposed Elling, saying that people should have the right to place political signs on their personal properties, and that the township should not prohibit that right.
A draft of the proposal was written and on target to be enacted on June 17. Although not on the agenda at the July 15 board meeting, the ordinance was brought up again for discussion at the end of the meeting. It was brought to a vote by the supervisors after the meeting, with Elling and Robert Hammaker voting in favor of the ordinance. Meanwhile, Stevens voted against the passage of the ordinance, and adopted the position that the ordinance was not properly introduced. Proper township protocol, Stevens said, is to have Township Manager Lisa Moore advertise the ordinance or list it on the agenda for comments.
Moore said that on July 16, she asked the supervisors what action she should take on the ordinance. Stevens asked that it be opened to comments; Hammaker said to advertise it. Elling said that the ordinance should be canceled.
"At the time of primary, Elling expressed dissatisfaction over signs in township, which is what kicked off discussion over possibly creating a political signage ordinance," Stevens said. "But the statute of the ordinance was clumsy at best."
Stevens said that the ordinance, as written, lacks specificity, and is unclear about what repercussions there are for certain violations. "What happens when someone takes signs from one candidate and places them on their property, and then accuses the candidate of placing the signs on his or her property?" Stevens asked. "With the way the ordinance was written, everyone was in line to get fined when it was not clear how we determine who is responsible."
"The challenge I had was that there really was no process being followed," Leff said. "It was unclear what the supervisors were asking for, and what they were planning. Are they going to deliberate in public? It was unclear as to how they were going to move forward on it."
Leff does not see a need to regulate political signage in the township, and called political signs "the beauty of our democracy. I've been to other parts of the world, where those are not rights that people have," he said. "The fact that we have free and open elections is the strength of our system."
Specifically, Leff objected to rule four of the ordinance, which states that signs may not be erected more than 30 days in advance of the election day. "Why does my constitutional right go away at 31 days before an election?" Leff said. "In a local election, people can mail in absentee ballots 30 days in advance. So one of the ways to reach people is through lawn signs. That limits our First Amendment rights."
Although Przywitowski, like his opponent, questioned the timing of initiating such a township law, he said that his campaign strategy called for limiting the number of signs he was to place in the township.
"We really wanted to avoid clutter," Przywitowski said. "A lot of candidates in prior campaigns had a lot of signs up, and it was often the source of complaints. I can understand that if the supervisors felt there was too much clutter with signs, you have to abide by it."
Elling does not see the political signage ordinance being placed on the front burner of township discussion any time soon. "The issue will remain dormant until there is some feeling expressed by others to resurrect it," he said. "It's like any other decision in the township. If there is public support for it, we move forward on discussion. If there is not, then there is no forward movement on it."