PORTSMOUTH — Some city residents are questioning the City Council’s ongoing efforts to regulate the size of political signs on private property, saying it infringes on free speech.
Their comments come this week after the City Council voted 9-0 to pass second reading of a zoning ordinance amendment that will regulate the size of political signs.
During this week’s meeting, City Planning Director Juliet Walker acknowledged the signs former longtime state Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin, R-Portsmouth, has posted in her yard in the past would violate the proposed zoning amendment.
Former longtime Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine said he was “disappointed” by the vote regulating political signs, which would be in effect from 120 days before an election to 14 days after.
“I don’t see how it can take effect. If people want to express themselves in any way politically whether by demonstrations, 10-foot signs, posters or standing on the street corner using a bullhorn, they should be allowed to do so,” Splaine said Wednesday. “There should never be any kind of restrictions over the involvement of our citizenry in politics and government.”
If the City Council passes third reading of the ordinance amendment, it would represent an infringement on freedom of speech, Splaine said.
“The council should be advised to read the United States Constitution, freedom of expression and speech should not be abridged,” Splaine said. “They don’t need to get into this fight, which is only going to end with a lawsuit, and Portsmouth is not very good at lawsuits.”
Resident Mark Brighton said if the ordinance change ends up in court, “they will lose.”
“The courts are very protective of political speech,” Brighton said.
He understands setting a limit for when the signs can go up, but not limiting the size of signs.
“Has Portsmouth become so precious in the last few years they actually see this as a threat to the scenery? These are the same people who put up bollards on Middle Street,” Brighton said in reference to the city’s controversial protected bike lane.
Brighton could not believe the City Council was considering such an ordinance amendment.
“They constantly leave me speechless and believe me, that’s hard to do,” said Brighton, president of the Association of Portsmouth Taxpayers. “If I want to have a sign that’s 10 feet by 10 feet and it’s on my property, I should be allowed to do that.”
“Where does the City Council intrusiveness go next,” he added.
During Monday’s council meeting, Walker described the ordinance amendment as a “rewrite of our entire sign ordinance basically to make sure we’re in compliance with recent federal cases that have passed.”
Right now, there are “no restrictions on election signage,” she said.
The proposed amendment would allow the city to regulate sign sizes, but not content.
Under the proposed ordinance amendment, the maximum sign size in the residential district is 6 square feet, 16 square feet in the downtown and 32 square feet in non-residential, Walker said.
“The reason for regulating them is you could have a proliferation of signage on private property that really could be detrimental to the city,” Walker said.
“Obviously, it’s up to the City Council and public what’s important to regulate,” she added.
Mayor Jack Blalock said it is “certainly not the intent” of the council to “regulate political signs.” Instead, the ordinance seeks to create “a mechanism to have them removed after campaign season.”
Blalock did acknowledge that as proposed Griffin’s signs could violate the ordinance. “I suppose it would without some kind of exception, that’s not the goal,” he said.
He added that the council, which has scheduled third reading for Dec. 17, could have “further discussions” about the proposed ordinance amendment.
“I really would not want to set up a situation where we’re telling people what they can do and cannot do on private property,” Blalock said.
Former Portsmouth mayor and Republican activist Peter Weeks said he thinks signs up to 32 square feet should be allowed.
“Four by eight feet sings are a normal political sign. Ruth’s not the only person to have them,” Weeks said Wednesday.
He also suggested cutting the 14 days after the election to just seven days.
“Candidates should have an obligation to clean up their signs. Way back years ago when I ran, I made an agreement with the Portsmouth Herald editor to collect all my signs by election night,” Weeks said. “By midnight on election night all my signs were gone.”
He noted the City Council still has the ability to change the proposed ordinance amendment at third reading. He supports enforcing a time period for when political signs can be posted.
“I don’t think it’s going against somebody’s property rights, because otherwise somebody could leave a sign up 365 days,” he said.
City Manager John Bohenko stated during the council meeting that he and City Attorney Robert Sullivan are “very, very careful to make sure we’re on the side of being more lenient than not” concerning political signs during election season.