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Township challenged on political signs at polls

July 23, 2014 - Atlas Twp.-More than three months before the voting polls open in the early morning hours of Nov. 4—a battle is stirring over political signs and First Amendment rights.

Goodrich Village Councilmember Richard Saroli voiced concerns during public comments prior to the beginning of the township meeting.

"Right now the ACLU's looking at the townships that have gone too far in restricting political signs across the state," said Saroli, who will be campaigning for re-election in November. "I would hope this does not go to court, the township will lose."

Saroli referred to a Detroit News story published on July 15 that references Macomb Township, where the ACLU says their new ordinance limiting political signs goes too far. A spokesperson for the ACLU told Macomb Township officials, "all signs must be treated equally or they will violate the time, place and content or subject matter guidelines."

Saroli said he's been in contact with the ACLU regarding the Atlas Township decision earlier this year regarding political signs.

The row stems from the four township polling locations that sparked debate last year, prompting township officials to amend the existing sign ordinances to encompass a new set of guidelines for political signs at the polls on election day.

In February, Township Clerk Tere Onica indicated she had received several complaints from the polling locations regarding the placement of signs the night before the election. In addition, an excessive number of signs by some candidates sparked problems at precincts on election day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Onica stressed public safety as a major concern, along with damage to the property where the township holds the election.

"Having overseen elections in the township since 2000—it's all about the respect for the election process and maintaining order at the precinct," she said.

Following the November 2013 election the concerns at the polls prompted Township Planning Commission Director Rick Misek, along with others, to formulate language to be added onto the current "temporary" sign ordinance regulating political signs.

Those rules now included at the polling location are:

n No more than one sign per candidate or ballot issue.

nNo sign shall exceed 16 square feet total area.

n No part of any sign shall exceed 4 feet above the existing grade.

n Signs may be located no closer than 100 feet from the nearest point of the polling place structure, nor closer than 4 feet from the travelled surface of the polling place driveway, nor within the road right-of-way in front of the polling place property.

n Signs may be placed no earlier than 6 a.m. on the day of the election, and must be removed no later than 11 p.m. on the day of the election.

"The number one reason the sign ordinance exists is to protect the First Amendment rights of free speech of all the candidates," said Misek.

"The rights of those candidates that are totally blocked out by some who completely occupy the field of communications at the polls must be protected. Their ability to convey a message is infringed upon. There's an issue of equitable application of the First Amendment to the election process. It precludes their ability to free speech when greed and bullies take over—we make laws that protect the small from the mighty. The election should have nothing to do with popularity or money, rather we need to bring dignity to the election process. "

By a vote of 4-1 at the February 2014 board of trustees meeting, the board expanded the current sign ordinance. Supervisor Shirley Kautman-Jones voted no, calling the change too restrictive.

However, the issues of jurisdiction will also be part of the equation during the election. Two of the township's four polling locations— Goodrich United Methodist Church, 8071 S. State Road, and Victory World Outreach, 10291 Green Road— are within the village limits.

"The state allows the clerk to run the election and set the rules," added Misek.

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