You know it’s election season when political signs start popping up around town. While that hasn’t started–yet–town leaders have begun discussions ahead of the start of campaigning about political signs on public, town-owned property.
There are two prongs to the discussion–the first is a question of whether political campaigns should be permitted to place signs on town-owned property; the second is debate about how many signs are too many. Who gets to decide the answers to each question will likely be different people.
The discussion started earlier this week at Monday night’s Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting. Wilton Democratic Town Committee chair Tom Dubin addressed the board members during public comment to raise the topic, stating he and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice had emailed earlier in the day about addressing the issue as well.
Vanderslice (who had also included the discussion topic as an item for later in the meeting on the agenda), reminded everyone that during the last election in Nov. 2018, both she and the town’s signage enforcement officer heard complaints from residents about campaigns that had placed signs on town-owned property–most notably at the Chess Park near Schenck’s Island in Wilton Center.
“What we said after that election, is that we would look at it before this election and get information from [town counsel] Ira [Bloom], so that we understand clearly what legal authority we have, what can or cannot be done,” Vanderslice explained, noting she had contacted both Dubin and Republican Town Committee chair Bill Lalor about discussing it at the BOS meeting on Sept. 9.
Dubin said he reached out to Vanderslice–who is also a candidate for re-election–and Lalor, and plans to contact Dave Clune and Michael Richard Powers–the two petition candidates running independently of party endorsement–to begin setting ground rules about how many signs candidates would set out and where.
“The last thing we want to do is have so many lawn signs that it’s ugly for the town and frustrates people. So I sent to…everybody a proposal from the DTC. If we would get together and agree what the ground rules would be. What we proposed to do is agree that signs can be placed only on homes or private properties; and agree on half dozen, or slightly more, public place that we would share–that we would agree not to put them on store fronts and other places other than that limited list,” Dubin said, adding, “We hope the other campaigns would agree to that.”
He also noted that if the campaigns do come to an agreement about that, perhaps they would also set limits on the number of signs that are put out on election day near Wilton’s three polling places.
“We all know what the schools look like with all the signs, people are tripping over the signs,” Dubin said. “We think it’s a good idea to try to rationalize that.”
Vanderslice explained that it was important to separate out what the town officials and town counsel needed to determine first–namely what the law says about whether political signs can be placed on town property at all–from what the political campaigns and candidates could subsequently do amongst themselves. She also wanted to make sure that the public had a chance to weigh in on the issue, something that could be done at a BOS meeting.
“It’s the public that has complained. It will be on the [BOS] agenda on Sept. 9 and the public can weigh in,” she said, noting that she was happy to hear that the two political town committees want to collaborate–but that the town legalities needed to be determined first, and then the campaigns could work things out.
“Signs are always a big issue during campaigns, so I’m glad that’s going to happen. But we, as a board, need to make the decision if it should be on public property, and also Tim Bunting, as the zoning enforcement officer, he has to know what his authority is. We’ll do that on the 9th–we’ll have a lot of public comment on the 9th,” Vanderslice added.
Complicating things is that four out of the five members of the BOS are also candidates running in the November election. In addition to Vanderslice running for re-election as the endorsed Republican candidate, Deb McFadden is the Democratic candidate also running for the first selectperson’s seat. Josh Cole is on the Republican ticket running for the BOS and Clune is an unaffiliated candidate running for re-election as well.
That leaves just one BOS member–Lori Bufano–who doesn’t have to recuse herself if it’s determined that there’d be a conflict of interest letting the other four vote on whether to allow political signs on town-owned property. Whether or not the four have to recuse themselves, or if Bufano could decide as the lone vote is all part of what the town’s attorney would weigh in on.
McFadden said it was appropriate for the full BOS to discuss what the law is, “But I’m not sure if we can make decision until after the November election for the 2020 [race].”
Vanderslice said attorney Bloom would weigh in on the legality and process of everything. “The first step is we have to go by the law. We have to make sure we have the laws and then on [Sept.] 9 we can find out what it is, and everybody on this board can decide whether or not to recuse themselves, and we can go from there.”
CORRECTION: The article has been updated to reflect that Dubin said the DTC has reached out to the first selectwoman and the RTC and plans to also contact the two candidates running separately from the town committees (Clune and Powers), but has not yet done so.
We have also included another comment Dubin made during his remarks at the meeting, regarding the signs posted at the schools on election day.