MOUNT VERNON — The election season is upon us and that means political signs touting a particular candidate or a position on an issue will soon be found in city residents’ lawns. For one Mount Vernon citizen, a sign has already been placed outside his home supporting a local candidate.
Chip McConville, resident and chairman of the Knox County Republican Party, placed a sign in his yard over a week ago to support a fellow Republican running for a local office.
“Of course I want to support the Republican candidate — I’m the chairman,” McConville told the News. “I would be all for allowing a Democrat to have a sign in their yard supporting their candidate of choice.”
For McConville, the placement of a candidate’s sign in his front lawn falls under the First Admendment’s fundamental right of free speech.
“That’s a personal decision. That’s your yard,” McConville said. “The city’s ordinance descriminates specifically against political speech.”
Many municipalities like Mount Vernon, put restrictions on how big political signs can be and how long they can be displayed.
In Mount Vernon’s case, political signs are restricted by city ordinance 1175.07 to being displayed beginning no more than 45 days prior to any election. These signs are also required to be taken down within three days after any election. For this year’s general election that permissible time period begins Saturday.
While political signs do not need a permit to be displayed, these time limit restrictions are applied to them.
Many municipal ordinances setting some kind of time limits similar to Mount Vernon’s have been declared unconstitutional at about every judicial level. One of the best known cases was decided by the Ohio Supreme Court in September 2000.
The case, City of Painesville Building Department v. Dworkin & Bernstein, examined a Painesville zoning code that limited the display of political signs by private citizens on private property to 17 days preceding a primary, general election or special election and to 48 hours after said election. This ordinance was ruled unconstitutional by lower courts and the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling.
Basically, the court ruled that the ordinance put in place a year-long ban on political signs and that the ordinance had the effect of temporarily suspending the ban. This, the court said was too large a burden on the right of free speech. The court also noted that most courts that have addressed the issue of durational limits on political signs had found these limits to be unconstitutional.
“Yes, ordinance 1175.07,” said Mount Vernon Mayor Richard K. Mavis when asked about those limits. “It’s 45 days before and three days after an election.”
Concerning his view on the constitutionality of ordinance 1175.07 Mavis told the News he felt it was a proper ordinance and addressed certain issues in which the city had a compelling interest.
“We haven’t changed our ordinance on that because, really, it’s a kind of an effort by the city to just control litter,” Mavis explained. “If we don’t have something on the books about cleaning up the signs or even the length of time you can put them out ahead of time, people really get loose with that sort of thing. So even though we are aware of that ruling, we still have it on the books.
“Now do we have the police go out and arrest the people? No. People had signs out last week early. We had some calls about that. And the only thing we do is call people and remind them that there is that ordinance.
“So I think if we were willing to abandon all of those code enforcements, then we are giving in on enforcement controlling litter and high grass.”
Larry Fogle, the city code enforcement officer, said this issue is a zoning concern and not a code violation.
The decision to enforce the ordinance is up to the Safety-Service Director Dave Glass. That enforcement is not a high priority for the city, according to Glass.
“What we do is enforce the ordinance,” he said. “There were a few signs that went up early this year but we called the people and explained the ordinance to them.”
Mount Vernon City Council President John Booth has a similar take on the constitutionality of the ordinance.
“Well, I’m no attorney so I couldn’t talk about its constitutionality,” he said. “I know it’s been on the books for a number of years and until council would get some directive from the city law director or if the city was sued over it, I imagine what we have will stand. I doubt the council would want to change it unless there was a state mandate. It seems like it’s worked pretty well for a number of years and like the old adage says, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The city law director’s office said the language in Mount Vernon’s ordinance applying limits to when political signs can be displayed is much different than the language found to be unconstitutional in Paineville’s ordinance.
“Our ordinance is significantly different than the one declared unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court in the City of Painesville decision,” said Rob Broeren, assistant city law director. “We have a much more narrowly tailored definition of signs that are covered. Our period of allowing signs to be posted before the election is almost three times longer than the period found to be unconstitutional in the Painesville decision.
“That being said, political sign enforcement is not high on the list of things we enforce and we want people to go and abide by the spirit of the ordinance on these political sign issues.”
Depending on whether or not a referendem is approved to narrow the window of early voting, voters can be casting their ballot for the November election as early as Oct. 4. For McConville, 10 days of political support with yard signs is just not enough.
“People are going to start the voting process without having yard signs out,” he said