Auburn's new ordinance replaces 'unconstitutional' policy on election signs

Old policy deemed unenforceable
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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When Auburn’s new sign ordinance takes effect, it will correct an old policy on election signs that the city attorney said was unconstitutional, and it will also reduce the amount of time they can be displayed before and after an election.

Though residents may, on the surface, be affected most by the aspect there will be a limit on how long they are subjected to campaign signs – 60 days before and 10 days after the election – the ordinance gives the city a code that should now stand up to first amendment rights.

For this election cycle, City Attorney Michael Colantuono advised Auburn officials not to enforce the policy it has had in effect since the early 1990s that required candidates to apply for a permit and pay a $16.50 application fee.

Colantuono said he “raised concerns” about the policy when he started working for the city in 2005. Asked why it had not been addressed sooner, Community Development Director Will Wong said revamping the sign ordinance had not been a high priority.

Having a policy that applied specifically to only political signs “singled out political speech” and thus raised the issue of prior restraint, an infringement on freedom of speech rights, Colantuono said. The new ordinance regulates “temporary noncommercial signs” on private property – a definition that is content neutral, he said.

“It may not matter much to the average person, but it’s crucial for first-amendment lawyers, because it changes it from something that is regulated based on what the speech says to one that is based on how the speech is accomplished,” Colantuono said. “It’s not about ‘political’ signs, it’s about paper, cardboard or plastic signs.”

The old policy did not restrict how long a political sign could be displayed before the election, while the new ordinance limits it to 60 days at most. The new rules also reduce the amount of time to remove signs after an election from 15 to 10 days.

Wong said he can only recall one time in the past two decades when the city had to enforce its sign policy because someone had left theirs up too long.

The city will contact a person who violates a sign ordinance and give them an opportunity to comply; if they don’t cooperate, the city can fine them $100, Wong said.

The temporary noncommercial sign category encompasses a very select type of signage – another example would be garage sale signs, since people’s homes aren’t considered a business, Wong said.

While Wong said a majority of people are compliant, others had a more cynical view of how long election signs are displayed.

Auburn resident Alex Duff said they can become “an eyesore” after awhile, but that they all get taken down eventually – some long after others.

“Some people stay around forever it seems like,” Duff said.

The corner where the bridge from Old Town over Interstate 80 dead ends into Placer Street is one particular “hot spot” he said.

“They’ll be there for a couple months after the election,” Duff said. “That’s pretty normal.”

Jerry Kopp, owner of Uptown Signs on High Street, said political signs make up about 10 to 15 percent of his business during an election year.

Kopp said the new time limits sound reasonable.

“I wouldn’t care how long they’re out there as long as they take them down at the end, because they won’t,” he said. “They just leave them, especially the state senators and things. They just leave them.”

He said this year his business made about 1,000 signs for county supervisor candidates and another 200 or so for Auburn elections. Kopp said he’ll get requests from candidates for signs up to four months before an election.

Kopp doesn’t expect the new ordinance will be strictly enforced.

As for whether people will comply?

“The winners will (take them down). The losers will leave them up,” he said. “Because they’re done.”

The Council brought back the new signage ordinance that it approved in September and added the new time limits for temporary noncommercial signs at its Oct. 22 meeting.

A 5-0 vote approved the motion by Councilman Mike Holmes, and the ordinance is scheduled for a second hearing on Nov. 19.

If no further actions are taken on it, it will take effect Dec. 19.


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews