Letter to the Editor: Political Sign Removal

Resident Tom Sullivan questions election day actions.

The matter of political signs being removed on election day (April 3) from certain polling places in University City has caused City Manager Lehman Walker to say changes are needed in the city's sign ordinances, which is not the case. It seems the city manager is trying to provide cover for his order to illegally remove the signs. 

It isn't necessary and it's a moot issue from the city's standpoint as signs at polling places on election day are governed directly by state law. Every city or governmental entity must sign an agreement acknowledging as such if a tax-supported public building is designated as a polling place by the board of election commissioners. 

The city signed an agreement with the Election Board for use of the Heman Park Community Center at 975 Pennsylvania as a polling place. It was signed on Nov. 3, 2011, by Leslie Eutz, Facility Supervisor for University City and covers elections for April 3 and other election dates in 2012. It states in the first paragraph: "Tax supported buildings shall allow electioneering by candidates and yard signs no closer than 25 feet from entry." (emphasis added).

Due to Mr. Walker ordering that the signs be removed, the city violated the agreement with the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners, which would also seem to violate state law at the least. With election matters, it does not take much interference to rise to a federal issue.

In a University City Patch , City Manager Walker says, "Our ordinance is very clear. Political signs are not allowed on city property." Apparently he is unaware of the polling place agreement the city signed with the election board or he chose to ignore it.

Councilmember Lynn Ricci backed up the city manager — who is also a client of her law firm — at Monday's council meeting.  As quoted in the Patch: "This is the ordinance that this council passed," said Ms. Ricci. "The flaws rest with this dais and not with the city manager. His job is to enforce the laws as written." The same as Mr. Walker, Ms. Ricci seems to have little idea what she is talking about.

University City resident Gloria Nickerson correctly states in comments on the Patch article that election laws supersede local ordinances. This is what Section 115.043, RSMo., says about the authority of an election board such as the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners:

Rules and regulations, powers of election authorities.

115.043. Each election authority may make all rules and regulations, not inconsistent with statutory provisions, necessary for the registration of voters and the conduct of elections.

Section 115.117.1, RSMo., also demonstrates the powers given to election authorities such as the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners:    

Tax-supported buildings must be made available as polling places--may rent private polling place, when.

115.117. 1. The election authority may designate tax-supported public buildings or buildings owned by any political subdivision or special district to be used as polling places for any election, and no official in charge or control of any such public building shall refuse to permit the use of the building for election purposes. The election authority shall have the right to choose the location of the polling place within such buildings.(emphasis added)

It would seem obvious that Lehman Walker violated election laws when he ordered signs removed from the . The same is true in regard to , where signs were also removed.

The larger question is why a city manager who is so often indifferent and slow to move on so many issues -- more than a year to fix some streetlights -- and who often refuses to even answer questions from citizens, would take such quick action when a complaint was received about signs on city property at a polling place.

Another question is why signs were removed only at certain polling places and why it took so long to return them — they were gone from around 8:45 a.m. until about 5:10 p.m. according to Ms. Nickerson and others. It almost seems as if removing the signs was planned. This matter raises more questions about Lehman Walker and whether he should be the city manager of University City.

Tom Sullivan, University City

George Lenard April 13, 2012 at 10:12 PM
"Tax supported buildings shall allow ... yard signs no closer than 25 feet ...." This can be interpreted to mean that outside the 25' zone there can be no restrictions whatsoever on signs. But state election law addresses the 25' zone only in the negative, prohibiting: "115.637 ... (18) posting signs ... within twenty-five feet of the building's outer door closest to the polling place, or ... refusing to remove or permit removal ... [of] any such election sign ... after request for removal." That law seems intended to bar signs from overwhelming the polling place entrance, not at protecting signs outside the 25 foot zone. Could the agreement with the Election Board to which Mr. Sullivan refers merely be an awkward paraphrase of the statute, intended to mean "Tax supported buildings shall [not] allow ... yard signs ... closer than 25 feet from entry." That's a change of only two words and then the result is consistent with the statute. So we have a City ordinance. And a state election statute. And a Board of Elections agreement. And possible Free Speech issues. And now Monday morning quarterbacks insisting this was a simple call to make. Note that the Patch story said that "Within a few hours and some questions by candidates, the signs were allowed to be put back up." So this very temporary action, in the face of legal uncertainty, is reason to question whether Lehman Walker should be the city manager? C'mon Mr. Sullivan...
Jeff Hales April 14, 2012 at 03:38 PM
George, the signs were prohibited for 8 hours, not a few. Furthermore, the contract with the Election Board--while slightly different from the statute--is unambiguous its language. The City's contractual agreement with the St. Louis County Board of Elections explicitly permits electioneering and yard signs on any tax-funded public polling place and is consistent with our sign ordinance 34-104.1 section 4 which addresses prohibited signs on public land except "those signs erected at the direction or with the permission of a public authority". There is simply no justification for the improper and selective enforcement and removal of the signs at just 2 polling places on election day. His actions created an inequality among our polling places, lowered awareness of election day and discouraged voting at those two sites.


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