A week ago, reluctantly agreeing with County Attorney Doug Batchelor's opinion that the county's political-sign restrictions violate the U.S. Constitution, Columbia County commissioners removed limits from political signs.
That's bad news for the community's roadsides. But there's good news in the reaction from the private sector -- which is where the best solutions often come from anyway.
The fight began three years ago when a state Senate candidate and a legal think-tank challenged the political-sign portion of the county's ordinance. At that time, Batchelor defended the ordinance, contending it actually gave more leeway to political signs. For example, commercial signs are prohibited in residential areas, but political signs are permitted.
The sticking point, however, was the county's rules limiting the posting of political signs to 60 days before an election, and requiring their removal within five days after the vote. Batchelor now agrees that those restrictions violate constitutional protections of political speech, and says the county essentially stopped enforcing the rules after that challenge.
The public was never told that, however; nor were candidates, who continued to abide by the rules. Thus, the unfortunate effect of the county dropping the restrictions is that it alerts candidates that their roadside campaigns can commence whenever they want, and go on indefinitely.
That prospect worries Ann Nordin, chair of Columbia County's Clean and Beautiful Advisory Committee. "I understand our hands are tied," she told commissioners, "but we work really hard to keep this county cleaned up."
The solution? Swap the perceived force of law with peer pressure. At the suggestion of commissioners, Nordin's committee will work on a pledge for candidates, asking them to voluntarily abide by the county's previous restrictions.
Already, the chairman of the county's Democratic Party agrees. He promises to extract that pledge from every candidate running under the Dems' banner, and challenges his Republican cohorts to do likewise. (See Scott Nichols' letter below.)
Sure, the rules would be voluntary. But if voters hold candidates accountable, the restrictions would be a lot tougher than anything the local government could enforce.
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