Lebanon City Council and local politicians continue to debate how to regulate the posting of political signs during election season.
The council has been considering a change for more than two months, since Lori Viars, a local GOP leader, proposed permitting more of larger signs in residential areas after one of her candidates lost a re-election bid.
A final vote is scheduled in two weeks on the latest amendments to the city’s sign ordinance.
“What we’ve tried to do is simplify it,” Law Director Mark Yurick said during a council meeting last week.
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In residential districts, two temporary signs, each up to 6 square feet and no more than 4 feet high, will be allowed. In nonresidential districts, two of the smaller signs as well as a bigger sign, covering up to 32 square feet would be permitted.
Viars, a leader of the county GOP, said the dispute with Lebanon actually goes back several years.
“It came to a head last October,” Viars said during a phone interview after the first reading of the proposed changes.
She said her hope was to get the city to do a better job of recognizing First Amendment rights and enable the campaigns of lesser-funded challengers in the local election.
Viars said the city began enforcing the existing rules during last year’s council race at the behest of candidate Krista Wyatt, who was upset about larger signs posted for opponent Doug Shope by Viars and others in his campaign.
Larger signs in residential areas came down.
“Nobody wants to junk up Lebanon,” Viars said. “We don’t run into this problem anywhere but Lebanon.”
Shope was elected, but Brian DeGennaro, a Lebanon school board member and military veteran whose re-election Viars also backed, was defeated by challenger David Donovan, the son of a former school board member after whom a local school is named.
“It penalized him, a guy who fought for the very freedoms we’re discussing,” Viars said, adding that by the time smaller signs were acquired, it was nearly election day.
Wyatt said she didn’t report DeGennaro’s signs, attributing that to a complaint passed on to city staff by former Councilman Jim Norris, who failled to get on the ballot due to problems with his petitions in the election that brought Shope and Wyatt onto the Lebanon council.
“As a city we have a duty to enforce when people complain,” she said in a phone interview after last week’s meeting. “We didn’t want to look like Mason and Deerfield Twp.”
Wyatt said she probably commented on larger signs, including those posted by Shope, when she was checking with the local code inspector on what was permitted.
“When I started seeing bigger ones, I called,” she said. “I was brought up to follow rules.”
The latest amendment to the city’s sign code was created after the council on July 10 voted down 4-3 a proposed amendment that would have permitted a 16 square-foot sign in residential areas where temporary signs previously limited to 12 square feet. While it is legal to regulate time, place and manner, the code cannot differentiate between political and commercial signs.
Vice Mayor Mark Messer, who Viars expected to take her side, joined those against the amendment, noting the “significant constituent response,” according to meeting minutes. “Only three people have contacted Mr. Messer to express their support for the larger residential signs, while he has been been inundated with opposition.”
Last week, two residents asked about their rights when someone posts a sign on their property without permission.
“If they don’t ask, you can take it down,” Yurick said, before acknowledging the difficulty of balancing regulation with the freedom of expression.
“Sign regulation is one of the hardest things we do,” Yurick said to Mary Harmon, in response to questions about property outside Lebanon where signs have been posted without permission.
“Hopefully people would get their information from elsewhere,” Harmon responded.
Viars, who did not attend last week’s public hearing on the latest proposal, said she was still considering whether to bring a lawsuit against Lebanon to bring it in line with other local communities.
“I just wish city council would be more reasonable,” she said. “Nobody wants a lawsuit.”
Another possibility is pushing for term limits for the local council, Viars added.
On Tuesday, Aug. 28, the council is to vote after a second reading of the proposed changes.