Candidates took sign rules lightly

CAMPAIGNING: Signs for four supervisor candidates huddle together at the intersection of Levee Road and Highway 1. Many of the eight andidates are suspected of placing signs illegally in county and state highway rights of way, the boundaries of which require a surveyor to map.  
05/19/2016

Candidates for District 4 supervisor hoping to broadcast their names and messages have picketed West Marin in recent months with a flurry of political signs, many of which violate county and state rules that prohibit signs in rights of way. Some candidates reason that the illegal placement of signs is an unfortunate byproduct of a campaign machine that has unleashed a follow-the-pack political mentality.

“Everyone’s been doing it. If everybody’s doing it, I’m going to do it,” said Wendi Kallins, of Forest Knolls.

The packed campaign season—with eight candidate’s vying for outgoing 20-year Supervisor Steve Kinsey’s seat and nine others seeking a open judge seat on the Marin County Superior Court—has prompted one of the largest outpourings of signs in recent memory. “There are more signs out this political season than I’ve seen during my time at the county,” said Ken Zepponi, a road maintenance supervisor who has worked for the county’s Department of Public Works for 26 years. “They are all over the place.”

Signs located in county and state highway rights of way violate signage codes—a fact that requires them to be taken down by the candidate or already taxed county and state road maintenance staff. And though pinpointing the boundaries of a right of way is difficult, Mr. Zepponi is confident that most supervisor candidates have been disregarding the rules.

“I can say, with reasonable certainty, that pretty much every candidate in West Marin has a sign in a right of way,” said Mr. Zepponi, who noted that the only way to verify a right of way’s existence would be to hire a surveyor to map it.

Under Marin County Development Code, political signs may only be placed by a property or business owner on his or her private property. Likewise, Caltrans prohibits signs on rights of way along its highways and anywhere else on state property without approval—which none of the supervisor candidates have obtained.

Candidates should know they cannot place signs in county or state highway rights of ways, said Dan Miller, the county Election Department’s candidate filing officer. All candidates, upon filing candidacy papers, were handed a booklet on general information, including signage restrictions.

All but two supervisor hopefuls—Mari Tamburo and Tomas Kaselionis—told the Light that they, their volunteers or supporters have put up scores of signs in West Marin. (Al Dugan, of Novato, could not be reached for comment, though his signs appear in West Marin and Novato.)

Many of those candidates said they are familiar with right-of-way rules and that some of their signs may violate those rules. Like Ms. Kallins, several said they chose certain locations because others were putting them there, too.

Dominic Grossi, of Novato, said violations might originate from an unclear understanding of what constitutes a right of way. “From what I’m hearing, there have been a few [in rights of way]…But the legal definition of a right of way—I’m not sure. We were just putting them where everyone else has been putting them up,” he said.

Lagunitas resident Alex Easton-Brown stressed that undefined right-of-way boundaries make proper sign placement a challenge, though he echoed Ms. Tamburo and Mr. Kaselionis in his view that “philosophically, I don’t like signs.” 

Brian Staley, of Woodacre, said the same. “Unfortunately, because of the nature of the race, I was forced to make a sign commitment,” said Mr. Staley, who began putting out his signs just last week. “The goal is to keep them modest.”

Dennis Rodoni, of Olema, was the only candidate not to claim responsibility for placing some signs set in potential rights of way. Out of roughly 250 signs, all “bar a few” were set up by supporters, he said, and were meant to be placed on private property.

“It is tough to tell what rights of way are,” said Mr. Rodoni, whose signs were the first to appear in West Marin. “I know some of my supporters have them out on what they believe to be their property, but whether they have or not….”

Mr. Rodoni acknowledged that his signs went up “a little bit early,” in violation of a county rule that requires signs to be placed no sooner than 45 days prior to and 10 days after the primary election, which this year is on June 7. 

But enforcing that rule is tricky, said county counsel Steve Woodside, given a 2013 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on free-speech issues related to signs that has called into question whether the 45-day period is too short. 

Mr. Woodside said the county plans to update its decade-old sign code to reflect the court’s decision. “I think there would be an interest in looking at that issue after the primary is over,” he said. “But no one is going to retroactively apply a 45-day limit.”

He added that sign violations do not rank high in enforcement priority for the Sheriff’s Office. Nor do those violations often stir the Community Development Agency, which is tasked with fielding public complaints.

“It is not on the top of our priority list because of staffing,” said Tom Lai, the agency’s assistant director. “We always get complaints each campaign season, and we try to point people toward the language of the ordinance if they inquire with us.”

So far, the agency has logged just one complaint about signs in West Marin—about Mr. Grossi’s signs “in the Pt. Reyes area,” Mr. Lai wrote in an email. He declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality policy.

At the Olema Campground, just a stone’s throw from Mr. Rodoni’s residence, Mr. Grossi’s signs have been the target of vandalism in recent weeks. On two occasions, signs were ripped down from a barn and a tree, and some at the campground have pointed to Mr. Rodoni as the alleged culprit. 

Mr. Grossi told the Light that Mr. Rodoni called him to complain about the campground signs. “He had a very serious problem with that,” Mr. Grossi said. “He said it was very rude, but I didn’t even know they were there.”

Mr. Rodoni denied any involvement with the vandalism, stating that he does not “get involved in that sort of petty stuff.” He noted that 12 of his own signs disappeared Friday night between Olema and Point Reyes Station.

Aside from violations and vandalism, many view the proliferation of signs as an eyesore. Though reluctant to join the fray, Mr. Staley said he is keeping close watch over his signs to make sure they do not become garbage.

“Many of the early-placed signs have since become litter, which was one of the reasons I waited till later to place mine,” he said. “As you drive through certain communities like Novato, there are many signs that have disintegrated.”

It’s for this reason that Ms. Tamburo and Mr. Kaselionis decided from the start not to incorporate signs into their campaigns, they said. Instead, Mr. Kaselionis—a Novato resident who said he is “adamantly opposed to mailers and signs”—drives a Ford Excursion with his name plastered on its flanks. That approach, he said, serves as a more effective advertisement that has garnered him some votes.

“It’s not wasteful, and it catches people’s eye,” he said. “I don’t appreciate the littering on the side of the road.”

Ms. Tamburo, meanwhile, said she may distribute a few recycled “I Love Marin” bumper stickers she’s collected from the county fair and repurposed as an advertisement. “Just a few creative snips here and there, and now it says ‘Mari’ on it,” she said. “I don’t believe in littering our beautiful landscape with signs.”