Thursday, September 11, 2008
Sign Provisions Arduous, Optional
By Colleen Heild
Journal Staff Writer
Attention, political candidates: If winning isn't enough of a challenge, try figuring out the city of Albuquerque's new forms governing campaign signs.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of a primary election campaign that led to criminal prosecution of nine candidates on alleged sign violations, the city has issued new forms that appear to require candidates to get pre-approval for sign locations and to accept legal responsibility for their signs.
But a check of the city's zoning and litter ordinances shows no specific language requiring affidavits or prior city review of sign locations — and despite the strict language of the documents, a city official now says those provisions are optional.
City zoning officials took plenty of heat several months ago after filing a bevy of illegal-sign charges against candidates that included a Metro Court judge.
Affidavit Accepting Political Sign Responsibility form Declaration of Intent to Place Political Signs in the City of Albuquerque form
Five of the prosecutions ultimately fizzled when the misdemeanor charges were dropped or dismissed by a judge or the city. Two are pending; another ended in a no contest plea. A plea agreement was reached in a fourth case.
City officials in June promised to improve notification to candidates about sign regulations. To that end, city zoning officials sent packets of campaign sign information last week — a few days before signs could legally be put up — to about 90 candidates on the general election ballot.
Two of the new forms in the packet appear to require candidates to jump through legal hoops before placing campaign signs.
One form entitled "Affidavit Accepting Political Sign Responsibility" has a place for candidates to sign and notarize before placing campaign signs.
Another states, "A list of potential locations for political signs should be submitted for review to determine if the location is permissive before the placement of any sign."
The city says political signs are prohibited on many locations including public right of way, utility poles, medians, arroyos and vacant lots. There also are restrictions on size, and requirements that they be gone 10 days after the election.
Asked about the legal authority for the affidavit of responsibility and pre-placement review, city planning director Richard Dineen said this week that candidates don't have to comply with either.
He conceded in an interview with the Journal that nowhere in the material does it say either the affidavit or review is optional.
"It doesn't say it's required either," he added.
So if someone thinks it's mandatory, they shouldn't worry about it?
"You know it's up to them," Dineen said. " We're trying to work out a system where we communicate better. If people feel it's burdensome then that's their decision."
Dineen said the city won't enforce the provisions for affidavits and prior approval for campaign sign location.
Candidates interviewed have said it's difficult to ensure their campaign workers — mostly volunteers — put signs in proper places. Some running for office have argued they shouldn't be held legally responsible for signs placed by their volunteers.
District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, who is seeking re-election, has begun putting up campaign signs in the city. She said Wednesday she never got the city's packet in the mail but wouldn't have the time to get pre-approval for placement.
"It doesn't sound like it would be practical for the campaigns; nor does it sound like it's something the city could even enforce. So it doesn't sound practical from any perspective."
Democrat Jason Marks, a lawyer seeking re-election to the Public Regulation Commission, said the affidavit and prior review stipulations appear mandatory from the wording on the documents.
"On its face, it requires me to complete an affidavit. I think we need a formal clarification of what the status really is. My concern comes because I think this is not what the city ordinance provides for."
Dineen said as far as he knows no one has complained about the new forms. He also said no one had submitted the notarized forms or asked for a review of locations.
Dineen said the material sent to candidates was intended to provide city zoning officials with a "named contact so we're just not calling the campaign headquarters and leaving a message with someone."
Even though the election is less than two months away, Dineen said there is ample time for the city to review prospective locations for candidates' signs.
Marks, who is PRC chairman, is awaiting trial on two counts of posting an illegal sign.
He has pleaded not guilty and said he intends to "make every effort to comply with the city's actual sign ordinance" during the general election.
"Signs are an important part of political speech for both candidates and supporters, especially for traditional grass-roots campaigns that need to get their message out and don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars for TV."