Thursday, August 19, 2004CHRIS BOURNEA
ThisWeek Staff Writer
With the campaign season heating up as the fall election approaches, theft and destruction of political signs has become a major issue, as evidenced by the growing number of residents who are reporting such incidents to police.
"We're hoping to get the message across that as we're coming into the political season, there are numerous candidate signs and they're being taken," said Upper Arlington Police Chief Dee Holcomb.
Holcomb on Aug. 9 met with representatives from UA for Kerry, a local group of residents that is supporting the Democratic presidential ticket.
In an Aug. 2 letter to city officials, the group urged Holcomb to speak out about sign stealing, which they claim "is just part of the ongoing harassment our supporters are enduring," as the Aug. 2 letter states. "Bumper stickers have been ripped from cars, windshields on three cars bearing the bumper stickers have been damaged, at least one car has been keyed, and just this weekend, a car fender bearing a UA for Kerry bumper sticker was bashed in."
The letter claims that these acts of vandalism have taken place "simply because we are exercising our first amendment rights and providing an alternative point of view traditionally not seen in Upper Arlington."
UA for Kerry representatives also claim in the letter that when members attempted to report missing signs to police in the past few weeks, officers said they had been instructed not to take reports of stolen signs but to simply make a note of the incidents.
Holcomb said the department has since altered its policy in light of the increasing number of UA for Kerry signs that have been reported stolen.
"At my direction, if somebody was coming in and saying their sign was stolen, we weren't taking reports because we get so many of them," he said. "But because they were targeting a particular group, we changed that."
Brandon Road resident Janie Hastie reported to police that two UA For Kerry signs were stolen from her home on July 31. Hastie said she believes the signs were stolen overnight.
When she discovered the signs missing, "I wasn't shocked, I was disappointed," she said. "Down the street the same thing had happened. It's happening all over town."
UA for Kerry co-founding member Jody Scarbrough said she is encouraged that Holcomb agreed to meet with the group to address the sign theft problem.
"We had encouraged him (to speak out) because the problem is huge. We have had well over 100 signs stolen now," she said. "It's beyond a juvenile prank. It appears an organized and concerted effort. We're trying to get people to take it more seriously."
The sign theft problem has caused UA for Kerry members to be inventive about how they display their signs, Scarbrough said.
"We have some that are hoisted in trees," she said. "We have one man who had his UA for Kerry sign stolen and he put a child-size easel out with a dry erase board saying, 'This was the site of my first UA For Kerry sign.'"
Scarbrough said she is concerned that the sign theft problem will overshadow UA for Kerry's message.
"We'd love it if we could have a discussion about the issues and the platforms of the candidates," she said.
City Councilman Tim Rankin, who serves as president of the recently formed Upper Arlington Republican Club, said the UA for Kerry signs may have been stolen by overzealous opponents.
"If people are taking signs, it's wrong," he said. "If I learn that anyone I know is engaging in taking signs, we will remove them from the club."
Rankin added, however, that he has heard numerous complaints from residents that the UA for Kerry signs were posted too soon and that many of the signs are displayed improperly.
"Signs have never been out this early before. They've had signs out for months now," Rankin said. "The vast majority of signs that I've seen are in the right of way."
Scarbrough said UA for Kerry's organizers have sent out newsletters and e-mails to 500 members with clear guidelines about how signs are to be displayed and emphasizing that they should not be in the public right of way. The guidelines are also on the group's Web site, she said.
Scarbrough added that she often sees Bush-Cheney signs that are in the public right of way.
"There's a Bush-Cheney sign here that is two inches from the sidewalk," she said, referring to her neighborhood. "What do I do about that? Do I knock on the door of the homeowner and tell them it has to be five feet from the sidewalk?"
The city of Upper Arlington recently updated its political sign ordinance to be consistent with Ohio Revised Code, said city attorney Jeanine Amid.
"The city regulates the placement of signs, where they're placed in a yard, that they not be in the city's right of way," she said. "We regulate the duration of the sign. For instance, if it becomes more like litter (due to deterioration) than a sign. We do not regulate how long you can keep up a sign with a political message."
Political sign guidelines specify that the city is non-partisan and does not endorse candidates, Amid said.
"We've had calls questioning the legality" of the UA for Kerry signs, she said. "We've informed them that we cannot regulate the verbiage on the sign but directed them to the Ohio Elections Commission."
Susan Truitt, another UA for Kerry representative, said the group is trying to get the word out that the group is independent and not affiliated with any government body or the Kerry campaign.
"It wasn't our intent to imply that all of Upper Arlington was for Kerry," Truitt said. "We try in our outreach to clarify that we're just a group of people who have gotten together. There are signs that say 'Teachers for Kerry' and 'Firefighters for Kerry.' That doesn't mean every teacher is for Kerry or every firefighter is for Kerry. It merely indicates that there's a group of people who are for Kerry."
Truitt said UA for Kerry encourages members to take their signs, which are an out-of-pocket expense and run $10-$15, in at night to avoid theft. The city is also encouraging residents to place their names on political signs so they can be recovered if stolen.
Holcomb stressed that offenders who steal signs will be prosecuted.
"This is a criminal offense. This is a theft offense. It is a first-degree misdemeanor. There are other charges that could come of that, because the person is trespassing on the property of another," he said. "We're treating these cases just as if someone went in and stole $500... We're taking a very serious look at it."