It’s election season: When fines follow campaign signs

DOVER — Every other year, as summer turns to fall, campaign signs begin popping up. Like flowers, they seem to bloom all over the state, and just like flowers, some of them meet an untimely demise.

Campaign signs must adhere to certain guidelines, and those that don’t are snatched up by the Delaware Department of Transportation and, unless the owner pays a retrieval fee of $15, destroyed.

As of Oct. 1, DelDOT had confiscated 569 signs from individuals running in either the primary or general elections, fining 76 individuals a total of $14,225, although some of those infringements were waived.

Removing the penalties forgiven by DelDOT leaves $9,975 in fines. Some of those costs have already been paid by candidates.

DelDOT spokesman C.R. McLeod said in an email the agency simply gives warnings, not fines, to first offenders. Because each of DelDOT’s four districts — North, Canal, Central and South — operate independently from one another, a candidate can receive multiple notices.

“We provide warnings for up to the first 10 signs per district office per when they are removed,” Mr. McLeod wrote. “Typically, no they don’t receive a waiver again.”

So, what makes a sign illegal?

Signs can be placed on public property along roads no more than 30 days before or after an election. This year, they could be set up as early as Aug. 7 and must be removed by Dec. 6, although they can be put on private property at any time.

Signs cannot be installed in the clear zone — the area within 10 feet of a public road. According to DelDOT guidelines, the road ends where the pavement stops, meaning signs placed 10 feet away from the edge of a lane but less than that from the pavement are breaking the law. It’s also against the law to place signs in medians or gores (triangular areas between access ramps and roads), and they cannot be on a pole or road sign.

In residential subdivisions, the clear zone is defined as the lesser of either the edge of a sidewalk or the land within 7 feet from the pavement edge.

Offending signs are taken to a DelDOT storage facility, and the candidates sponsoring the signs are fined $25 per offending item, regardless of whether the candidate or simply a supporter placed them there. Between that and the $15 cost to reclaim a sign, breaking state law on where placards can be displayed can get expensive quickly.

The regulations around advertising, political and other, are intended not just to prevent unsightly signs from popping up anywhere and at any time of year but also to keep roadways safe. A sign sitting right next to a road can potentially block a driver’s view or could be blown out into traffic in the event of heavy winds, for instance.

According to Mr. McLeod, DelDOT employees regularly sweep the state for illegal signs during election season.

“Each district has a rotational schedule they follow so we are covering the area evenly,” he wrote. “We do not act on tips or complaints unless it is for a road we do not typically patrol. If that is the case, we will hold the complaint until we are performing a sweep in the area of the complaint and address it at that time. We go out regularly.”

As of Oct. 1, DelDOT had waived 168 fines for candidates running in either the primary or general elections. There were also two instances of signs designated as being untraceable, meaning the agency could not gather the requisite amount of information to send a fine or warning to the violator.

Eight candidates running in the primary or general elections made up close to half of all violations through Oct. 1. Collectively, they racked up 273 violations totaling $6,825 in fines, although $850 worth of those fines ended up being waived.

U.S. Senate hopeful Rob Arlett, who won the Republican primary for the party’s nomination, had 55 violations, more than any other candidate. Five of those were wiped out by the department, meaning he owes $1,250 in fines. Reclaiming all the signs confiscated by DelDOT would cost another $825.

Mr. Arlett expressed surprise upon being told the number of violations, saying that was news to him and he was unsure why there were so many.

“Our sign team and volunteers know the rules and have followed the rules,” he said, speculating some individuals deliberately placed his signs in spots where they would generate fines.

Most of his violations were in the Central or North districts.

Kendra Johnson, who successfully sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for the 5th Representative District, had been assessed $1,350 in fines as of Oct. 1. None of her 54 violations were waived, owing to the fact the department collected 19 offending signs in one day — above the typical limit of 10.

The six other offenders with at least 20 violations apiece were William Resto, Sen. Tom Carper, Scott Walker, Lee Murphy, Kathleen Davies and Joe Daigle. Some of their fines were waived.

 

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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