Political signs stir a City Council conflict

By Bobby Bryant, Editor, editor@newsandpress.net

The city of Darlington has an ordinance that says political signs can’t be put up until 30 days before an election.

But … opinions by the S.C. attorney general’s office and other legal rulings make it seem likely that this ordinance couldn’t survive a legal challenge because of free-speech issues.

So … should Darlington residents be required to obey this ordinance in this mayoral-election year?

Darlington City Council, and its two members opposing each other in this fall’s race for mayor, briefly and sometimes sharply debated the question during council’s July 2 regular meeting.

The political-sign issue apparently first popped up some months ago when a supporter of Mayor Gloria Hines’ re-election bid put up a Hines sign and someone protested that it violated the city’s ordinance.

City staffers were asked to research the law on this, and the state attorney general’s office supplied a 2008 opinion written by then-attorney general, and now governor, Henry McMaster, indicating that such time-limiting political-sign ordinances were constitutionally “suspect” and probably wouldn’t survive a legal challenge.

That sparked City Council’s discussion last week, as council members talked with city attorney Kevin Etheridge about the issue.
Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn Bruce, who is challenging Hines in the mayor’s race, said it all came down to consistency.

“My concern is if our city ordinance says signs (don’t) go out until 30 days before the election. . . . When I ran (for council) four years ago, that’s what I was told,” Bruce told council. “Four years ago, nobody put signs out until 30 days before the election. Now, somebody has to put a sign in their personal yard and it gets challenged. . . . ”

“There’s an inconsistency somewhere in all of this,” Bruce said. “ … There’s some inconsistency when you talk about this (sign) ordinance (infringing) on somebody’s First Amendment rights. …”

Council member Elaine Reed said: “According to our ordinance, it is 30 days. It didn’t matter whether it was anybody’s yard or in the right-of-way. Political signs were not supposed to be displayed (until) 30 days (before the vote).”

As far as enforcing city ordinances, Reed said, “We can’t pick and choose which ones we want to do. … If we are going to follow the rule on one, then follow the rule on the other.”

Bruce told council there was still inconsistency here. She cited the city attorney’s review of the documents from the attorney general’s office and her assertion that in the 2015 council races, “nobody” put out political signs until a month before the election. “Four years ago, according to Kevin, you infringed on my constitutional rights,” Bruce said. “Four years ago.”

In this year’s council elections, Bruce said, “I think the first sign that went up prior to 30 days was (a) Mayor Hines sign. . . .

I don’t have a problem with it … but we need to make sure we are being consistent across the board, as mayor and council, when it comes to somebody’s signs.”

Council ended the discussion without a vote, because there was nothing before them to vote on. If council makes changes in the city’s political-sign ordinance, a member will need to submit that as a plan that can be voted up or down.

A third candidate running for mayor, businessman Curtis Boyd, says he was told that the city apparently will be following the existing ordinance.

Boyd supporters have had signs up for months, but Boyd said on his Facebook page last week he will obey the ordinance as it’s written and will ask supporters not to put up signs until 30 days before the November vote.

On Boyd’s Facebook page, he says that on June 13, Darlington’s city manager and the city’s codes department “told me in written documentation that we could put campaign signs out in the public’s yards.”

He noted that during council’s July 2 meeting, “They brought it back up and were undecided on if they should allow the signs or not.

I was told after the meeting they have now decided to stick to the city ordinance that says we have to wait until 30 days ahead of (an) election.”

Boyd continued, “I ask that if you live in the city that you put your campaign signs in your home until 30 days before the election. … On Oct. 7, signs can go back up. … Election Day is Nov. 5.”

City ordinances also came up last week on another issue. Anna DeWitt, a government watchdog who shoots videos of City Council meetings and posts them on her Facebook page, addressed City Council to ask that members follow an existing ordinance requiring roll-call votes.

Before an election, DeWitt said, it’s important to learn as much as possible about the candidates. “One way of doing this is by checking their voting records. … I’m here tonight to ask council to start following our city ordinance … (that) states that a vote on every question shall be followed by a roll call and a vote by name shall be recorded in the council minutes.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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