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August 27, 2011

 

Candidates, residents object to election sign law

SignBob Ellis/staff photographer
Two political signs, one between the curb and sidewalk, the other on the front lawn of a home, are pictured Tuesday on Garfield Street.

By MATTHEW NOJIRI
Staff Reporter
mnojiri@cortlandstandardnews.net

Ruth Grunberg has always been a big believer in political signs.
Grunberg, a local activist and city resident, says signs are a good way for people to express themselves politically, whether it be as a way to support local candidates or take a stance on an important issue like natural gas drilling or war.
“It’s a free way to get publicly involved in the political process,” Grunberg said. “They are an important part of political speech.”
Grunberg is among a group of people, including local political candidates vying for elected positions this fall, who are concerned about city rules that say residents can have only one sign on their property and that the sign must not be between the curb and the sidewalk.
“People are asking, ‘Where’d this law come from?’ ” Grunberg said.
City code officials sent a letter Aug. 12 to candidates, informing them that code allows for people to put only one political sign on their property without a permit. Bill Knickerbocker, city director of code enforcement, said the code office received a complaint earlier this month about political signs on Tompkins Street and decided to send the letters. When asked, he did not say who sent the complaint.
“We’ve just been trying to be consistent with respect to these ordinances,” Knickerbocker said.
Local candidates and activists say the rule, which has been sparingly — if ever — enforced, limits their right to free speech and could hurt candidates during the fall elections.
“It means that if someone is supporting me, they can’t support a legislator or mayoral candidate with a sign,” said Alderman Linda Ferguson (D-7th Ward). “This is absurd in my opinion, and I will not stand for people taking away my city’s constitutional rights.”
Candidates say the signs let people know about their campaigns and have become an annual part of the political process. Ferguson has called the American Civil Liberties Union and city officials to inquire about the rule.
Mayor Susan Feiszli said she supports people’s right to have signs supporting multiple candidates on their lawns but that Knickerbocker and others in the code office are simply following the rules. She hoped a solution could be worked out that would allow people to put up signs for various candidates.
Feiszli, who is running for re-election, said she would look into the issue with the city’s legal department.
Knickerbocker said the code, which was written around 2003, could be difficult to enforce. He said officers would ask people to remove the signs before giving people violation tickets that could cost as much as $250.
Knickerbocker hoped people would follow the rule voluntarily. He agreed the code seemed to affect people’s free speech rights.
“I think the author of the code didn’t give thought to all of the races going on at one time,” Knickerbocker said.
People can apply for permits with the city for additional signs. The permits cost $10.
Some candidates wondered why the code is being enforced now, when people had been allowed to put up signs for multiple candidates in previous years.
“It hasn’t been enforced in the past,” said Legislator Tony Pace (D-7th Ward), who worried he would have to compete with local alderman and mayoral candidates for sign space on voters’ lawns.
Pace agreed with other candidates who contend the rule violated people’s First Amendment rights.
“If people want to voice their opinions, they should be allowed to do it,” said Erich DeMunn, Republican mayoral candidate. “Why shouldn’t they be allowed to?”
Some candidates will simply ignore the rule.
“I will put 20 signs on my lawn,” said Michael Magee, who is running as the Republican candidate for alderman in the 7th Ward.

 

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