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Campaign Sign Enforcement Effort Begins

By Anthony Noel
Contributing Writer

“It’s all over but the shouting.”

Oft repeated after a momentous or particularly nail-biting sports event or political campaign, this truism says more than it might seem at first blush. The event may be over, but does the shouting ever really end?

In the political realm especially, the shouting is the thing. Elections merely clarify who will be shouting in an “official” capacity and who will be trying to shout the “official shouter” down. Until the next election, at least – when they’ll get another chance to become an official shouter themselves.

It all sounds pretty noisy, huh?

Some think the volume of our political cacophony has increased in recent years, while the virtue of our politicians has dropped to levels heretofore unseen. But they haven’t.

Politicians – like normal humans – have always ranged from squeaky clean to greased-pig slimy, their messages from calmly informational to loud, to bombastic, to totally over the top.

The best we, those consuming (being force fed?) these messages can hope for is that laws meant to regulate them are actually carried out – lest we, our airways, our computers, and what we are concerned with here – our streets – become so overrun with such messaging that it tilts electoral fairness, clutters the environment and threatens public safety.

In Greenville’s 2013 municipal election, the Guardian saw an opportunity to examine how serious the State of North Carolina and its regional agencies, and local law enforcement in particular, are about enforcing such a law. NC General Statute 136-32 regulates the size and placement of political campaign signs along our roadways.

Memorial and Westhaven

One of several 2013 Thomas campaign signs which appeared to be posted illegally

When incumbent Mayor Allen Thomas and city council candidate Michael Overton placed oversized campaign signs where they shouldn’t have been placed under that law (Thomas also placed signs far earlier than the permitted 30 days before the start of early voting) we decided to see how – indeed if – the law was being enforced.

We began by calling the apparent infractions to the attention NC DOT. The state’s department of transportation is charged under the law with removing signs placed in violation along state roads. When that yielded nothing, we pointed out the violations to local jurisprudence and law enforcement agencies. That too went nowhere, despite the law’s simplicity and clarity. In that 2013 cycle, we wound up trying to guilt candidates into adhering to the law simply because it was the right thing to do.

But we knew we were onto something, because it was clear: What we really had witnessed from DOT to prosecutors and law enforcement officials was a game of “hot potato.”

Here’s how the game proceeded:

Local NCDOT officials seemingly threw explanations as the wall hoping one of them might stick. First they cited a lack of sufficient manpower to remove the signs, adding that because of it, they only remove signs which “interfere with motorists.” The law itself, however, makes no mention of motorist impact and clearly states that removal of violating signs is DOT’s responsibility. Local DOT officials seemed finally to settle on their inability to cite the violators, since they are not a law enforcement agency.

So we called the Pitt County DA.

Kimberly Robb said local law enforcement could cite violators with signs on roads they patrol within their jurisdictions, further suggesting that NC DOT could remove a violating sign and simply notify police to issue the citation.

So we called the Pitt County Sheriff.

That department first said it was “studying the statute.” Days later, it tossed the spud to the Greenville Police Department, saying it would not cite infractions “within the city limits” since it operates on the understanding that GPD has primary responsibility for such locations.

On to the GPD code enforcement division, where we learned – or were told, at least – that such signage was regulated by the city’s zoning officers. But when w contacted that office, it said no, it is most certainly not on us, it’s on GPD. It took two more emails to GPD – the last copied to the code enforcement supervisor’s boss – to get a terse and, frankly, unconvincing promise of a more detailed response in to be forthcoming, “in writing.”

With no good answers and the campaign winding down, we went to the campaigns themselves. Perhaps their sense of fair play would prompt self-regulation. Overton, a first-time candidate, dragged his feet but ultimately took action to ensure his violating signs were moved to permitted locations. Thomas did nothing.

Even at the state level, our concerns about the law’s enforcement were ignored by none other than Attorney General Roy Cooper, the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official. His office refused our requests for a phone interview.

And why? It’s not like elections just started happening – and by 2013, the statute in its current form had been on the books for two cycles, including a presidential election. New enough that it was conveyed to both major parties, whose state leaders, in turn, sent letters to each of their county offices detailing the requirements. Those letters included a copy of the law itself.

In the end, our doggedness made at least one local law enforcement agency sit up and take notice. After the code enforcement office in his department aided the game of runaround, GPD Chief Hassan Aden, in a letter sent to the Guardian last December, pledged GPD “will be more observant for compliance at the next election,” and, in a subsequent email exchange, added, “We will be looking at this issue in preparation for the next election.”

Hassan kept his promise.

During the election cycle just completed, GPD estimates it removed 80 signs, in what it called “a pulling and education phase.”

Find out what that means – and learn about the department’s enforcement plans for 2015  – in the next installment.

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