Wilton Officials: Town Can’t Block Political Campaign Signs on Public Property
Get ready Wilton, political campaign signs will begin making their appearance in town–including, possibly, on town-owned property.
At last night’s Board of Selectmen meeting, officials briefly discussed an opinion provided by town counsel Ira Bloom (who was not in attendance at the meeting) about whether the town could block political campaigns and candidates from placing signs on town-owned property.
In the past, candidates and campaigns have generally avoided placing political signs on town-owned right of ways, parks, school property (other than on Election Day), and Town Hall Campus. Officials have pointed to complaints from some residents in raising the question whether the town should explore formally limiting such signs, while still permitting private property owners to have discretion about displaying political signage.
Bloom wrote in a letter to the selectmen that limiting placement of political signs was not advised. “It is now quite clear that any local efforts to regulate the content of a sign–so-called ‘content-based’ regulations–are not likely to be constitutionally allowed. Signs are a form of speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
He specifically noted that Wilton cannot adopt any ordinance or zoning regulation that would prohibit only campaign signs. An ordinance banning all signs on municipal property–including those for charitable events and school events–would be the only possible, albeit not preferable, alternative.
“Such a complete ban might be undesirable to many residents,” he concluded.
As a result, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said there wasn’t much left to discuss, other than remind residents that if political signs are put up on town property, town officials cannot remove them.
“The public needs to understand that Tim Bunting, as the zoning enforcement officer, can’t do anything. No town employee can do anything about the signs if they’re there,” she said.
Proposal from DTC
Last month, Tom Dubin, chair of the Wilton Democratic Town Committee (DTC), had introduced the idea of an informal agreement between the five registered campaigns to limit where they might place signs–including a short list of public, town-owned land. He said he still intends to discuss such a proposal with representatives from each of the other four registered campaigns–Bill Lalor, chair of the Republican Town Committee; Lynne Vanderslice, Republican running for re-election as first selectwoman; Dave Clune, unaffiliated candidate running for re-election as selectman; and Michael Richard Powers, petitioning candidate running for first selectman.
Dubin declined to provide a copy of the agreement proposal to GOOD Morning Wilton because it hasn’t been finalized, but he did allow a review of the draft Monday evening. As proposed, the campaigns could come up with a mutually agreed upon, limited list of town property as well as limit the number of signs per candidate that would be allowed under such an agreement.
As of Monday night, none of the five campaigns had agreed to anything.
Vanderslice declined to have Dubin discuss the proposal with the selectmen during Monday night’s open meeting, after having just reviewed town counsel Bloom’s opinion. “We don’t have the authority. [Dubin] proposed it as an agreement for the campaigns, but it’s not a topic relevant to us.”
In his opinion, Bloom referenced such an informal agreement between political parties and candidates, calling it “certainly possible and perhaps useful” for campaigns and candidates to agree about the placement of political signs.
“Such understandings could be adopted by the Board of Selectmen as an informal policy, without any sanctions or enforcement mechanism, simply relying upon the good faith cooperation of Wilton residents,” he wrote.
GOOD Morning Wilton emailed each of the campaigns and first selectmen candidates to ask what their plans are with regard to placing political signs on town property.
Clune responded by email to say, “I may put a limited number of signs at polling places on Election Day but otherwise will not put signs on public property.”
Vanderslice emailed her comment as well: “I will follow the long standing practice in Wilton of candidates not putting signs on town property, other than Election Day. I will not put my signs on town property other than placing no more than three signs each at the three polling locations on Election Day.”
Dubin said the DTC will move forward with trying to get an agreement among the campaigns in place. “We think it would be great if each of the five campaigns would agree on rules for where lawn signs can be placed in town. A voluntary pact could help avoid the usual escalations, especially now that town counsel has advised that Wilton cannot restrict signs on town property. Wilton’s Democrats look forward to working with the other campaigns to see if we can accomplish this pact and limit lawn signs to residences and an agreed list of public locations.”
Powers, who was at the meeting, questioned if there is resident objection to signs, and says he has asked the town to provide proof of resident complaints. “Out of 18,000-plus residents, was it 15,000 people? Was it 10,000? 5,000? 1,000? Was it six people? We have no idea. It’s just ‘some’ people have a problem. Unless it’s a definitive issue with the town, where’s the problem?”
When asked if he does plan on putting signs on town property during the campaign, Powers answered definitively, “Yes.” Does that include on school property? “I won’t do that prior to election day,” he noted.
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