San Diego Every election season, my father sinks a wire-framed campaign sign into the strip of grass between his sidewalk and the street.
Every election season, an unseen enemy steals it. Dad replaces the sign. The enemy removes it sometime in the night. Dad nails the sign to the cedar tree growing in the grass strip. It's gone the next morning. Dad vows to stay up all night hiding in the bushes to catch the enemy in the act, but the cold autumn night dissuades him from his plan. He has a few suspicions as to the enemy's identity. They're centered around a Green Party member a few doors down. But though their political views oppose each other, Dad and Hildegard's neighborly exchanges have been friendly. During one such exchange, she mentioned that the "Vote Green" sign she'd set up by the curb had been taken.
Early October in La Mesa: I stuck four campaign signs in front of my house on a busy street that feeds and receives traffic from a freeway a quarter mile away. Like Dad, I drove the signs' wire frames into the strip between the street and the sidewalk. Like Dad's, my signs were nabbed in the night.
While stealing political signs has gone on as long as there have been political signs, Dad, Hildegard, and I may not be victims of thieves. Municipal employees may have taken our signs. That's because all three of us placed our signs in the public right-of-way, a practice prohibited by most cities in the county.
"You have to study the city rules -- and sign regulations are almost always city law -- carefully," said Randal Morrison, a San Diego attorney who specializes in sign law. "Because the rules often vary according to whether the property is owned by the City or privately owned."
I called the City of La Mesa to find out if I'd violated the rules with my signs. "Did you put them between the sidewalk and the street?" asked a La Mesa planning department official named Allyson Kinnard.
"Yes," I answered.
"That is a prohibited location. You're not allowed to put signs in the right-of-way. The sidewalk and the land between it and the street are city property. As far as what happened to the signs, public works does in some cases take signs out of the right-of-way."
Allyson referred me to the City's website for codes governing political yard signs, then transferred me to code enforcement officer Alan Edwards. "I did not pull those signs," he told me, "but city workers are allowed to pull signs that are in the right-of-way. They could be over at public works."
According to La Mesa's municipal code, "temporary noncommercial" signs such as political yard signs can be 32 square feet. That's the size of a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood. They can't be illuminated, and they must be on private property, set back at least one foot from the property line. My La Mesa street has a sidewalk that delineates where my property stops and city property begins. But most residential streets in La Mesa don't have sidewalks, which makes knowing the exact boundary difficult. That's why, Edwards said, "If I find something that is sort of in the gray area as to whether it's on the right-of-way or on someone's property, then I leave it. I try to stay away from any entanglements or being accused of picking and choosing which signs I take."
Like La Mesa, most cities in the county forbid placement of political signs in the public right-of-way. Exceptions are Poway and Santee. "They can be in the right-of-way," said Tommy, a planning department official for the City of Poway, "but not in the medians. And they can't be attached to fences or light posts or anything like that. They have to be sunk in the ground."
On a list of "frequently asked questions about election signs" e-mailed to me by Janet Peterson of the City of Santee, question number five, "May I install election signs in the public right-of-way?" is answered, "Yes, except within road medians." An answer later on the list states that signs in the right-of-way "are not subject to city permits. However, signs placed in such a manner so as to obstruct pedestrian, bicyclist, or driver views...must be removed."
La Mesa code dictates that political signs may be erected no sooner than 45 days before an election and must be taken down no later than 5 days after. That's one of the longer time frames allowed in the county. Escondido, for example, allows signs 30 days before and 10 days after an election. San Marcos allows 32 days before and 10 days after. National City allows 30 before and 5 after. The City of Del Mar takes the approach of allowing 60 days' display of campaign signs in any calendar year. Morrison said these cities are treading upon the First Amendment by placing time limits on political signage. "The most common legal problem with the rules on political signs," he explained, "is the cities usually state that you can only display them X number of days before the election and X number of days after. When someone cares enough to challenge those rules, the judges almost always invalidate [the rules]. The reason is, people have political opinions all the time, not just during election seasons. And if they want to express their political opinions before the election, they can."
The City of Santee observes the First Amendment when it comes to campaign signage. Though it places 30-day pre- and 10-day post-election time limits on signs in the right-of-way, Santee's answer to the question "Am I required to remove my election signs on my residential property within a certain time following the election?" is, "No, such signs are constitutionally protected."
"Another very common mistake cities make," said Morrison, "is having special rules that apply only to political signs. For instance, they'll put a size limit on the political signs, and then if you look elsewhere in the local law, they will allow temporary construction signs or store signs to be larger. That means the city is giving greater display rights to a commercial message than to a noncommercial message. In the law, the word 'noncommercial' means debate on topics of public concern, the very thing the First Amendment was written to protect. Constitutionally, you simply cannot favor commercial messages over noncommercial, period."
Constitutional concerns may be the reason the City of Imperial Beach, other than forbidding signs in the public right-of-way, places "no real restrictions" on political signs, according to a city planning official. "It's just a matter of whether it becomes a design problem or a traffic hazard or if we start getting complaints about it."
Thirty-two square feet is the largest political sign allowed by most cities in the county. On private property, Vista allows only 16-square-foot signs. Like Poway and Santee, Vista allows signs in the public right-of-way, but while those two cities allow 32-square-foot signs in the right-of-way, in Vista the maximum is 6 square feet.
As for my four campaign signs, nobody I reached at the City of La Mesa planning, code enforcement, or public works departments knew anything about them. Like Dad, I began to think a political enemy had taken them. Like Dad, I formulated strategies to catch the enemy as I placed new signs out front, this time not in the right-of-way. Like Dad, I didn't employ any of the clever ideas I came up with. Unlike Dad's signs, my legally located signs stayed up all election season. In fact, they're still up. And, unless I insist on my First Amendment rights, I've got three days to remove them.