'Tis the season when political yard signs sprout up far and wide across East Greenwich. It wasn’t always so.
Twenty years ago, longtime residents say, no candidates used yard signs to gain visibility and win votes. That changed, though the reason for the change isn’t completely clear.
Some in town say the change came after then-EG resident Donald Carcieri first ran for governor in 2002. But there’s evidence the change came after the Town was admonished in 2004 that its sign ordinance was unconstitutional.
A letter from the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU (addressed to former Town Solicitor Edmund Alves although he had been replaced by Peter Clarkin by then), said:
"Our office received a complaint from an East Greenwich resident last month who was ordered to take down an election campaign sign she had displayed because it had been erected more than 30 days before the election, in contravention of the town’s sign ordinance. However, the Town’s 30-day limitation on the posting of political signs is a clear violation of First Amendment."
(That letter was given to EG Patch from RI Future's Bob Plain, former editor of EG Patch and my02818.)
Sometime between 2004 and 2012, the ordinance was changed. Attorney Clarken said he didn't recall the incident. Town Manager Bill Sequino could not be reached. The current ordinance on political signs reads:
Political signs may be no greater than four square feet in area. Freestanding political signs may be no greater than four feet in height overall, and they may not be placed closer than five feet from any property line. Such signs are prohibited from public rights-of-way, municipal buildings and properties and may not be affixed to trees, traffic signs or utility poles.
Anthony Giarrusso, Republican candidate for state House Dist. 30, had many signs around town before the Sept. 11 GOP primary he won. Giarrusso said he thinks the signs made a difference for him, but that he made sure to get permission for each of his signs before posting them. He said he wasn't sure others are so careful.
"I’m seeing other's signs along public highways, on street corners, and I don’t think that’s what was intended," Giarrusso said via email. "To be fair, however, if the statute is simply ignored by the other campaigns, and if the town is not going to actively enforce the statute, it would be silly of us not to place as many signs as possible, wherever we can find the space. The town needs to chime in on this before things are totally out of control."
Mark Schwager, Democratic candidate for state House Dist. 30, said, "My recollection is that bascially East Greenwich was the land of no political signs when I moved here." That changed, he said, when Carcieri ran. "Don basically papered the town with signs. I was running for Town Council that year and I ordered 50 signs."
Two years ago, Schwager ran for the open Senate Dist. 35 seat that was won by Dawson Hodgson. "When I ran for the Senate, there was a clear distinction of sign size between North Kingstown and East Greenwich," he said, noting that signs in NK tended to be bigger.
Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-Dist. 35) said he doesn't like yard signs, but is resigned to using them.
"The practice is a major component of political campaigns, and a candidate ignores their impact at their own peril," Hodgson wrote via email. "I always admired Bob Watson's approach: No "Watson for Rep" signs, but he places a single "Vote Republican" sign in front of his house on Election Day. Of course Bob built his career in an era where there was a no yard sign tradition in East Greenwich."
Carl Hoyer, who served on both the School Committee and the Town Council in the 1980s and '90s, said he never used political signs. He likened the practice to the measles: "it spread and spread." Still, he said he didn't mind the use of signs. His only complaint was that they weren't always removed in a timely fashion after the election.
Mark Schwager also had mixed thoughts on the subject of signs.
"My pet peave with signs is they really shouldn’t be put in public rights of way. It really should be on private property," he said. "Beside that, I enjoy looking at the different designs.... In politics like everything else, there’s a whole strategy between the timing, size, placement, and a whole lot of things."