Election confusion -- signs of the times

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2012 - 8:37 PM

Clamor over a campaign sign in Coon Rapids has revived biennial fluster over when and where political signs can be posted.

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A sign at Hanson and Coon Rapids Boulevards promoting Scott Schulte’s county board race has stirred up biennial confusion over when and where signs can be posted.

Photo: Megan Tan, Star Tribune

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Days after Coon Rapids and Anoka officials informed candidates that they couldn't post political signs until June 29, a sign promoting Scott Schulte for Anoka County commissioner was visible at one of the busiest intersections in Coon Rapids.

Callers complained and authorities made daily visits to Schulte's service station for two weeks, Schulte said. But he apparently hadn't violated any laws. It was the cities that were confused.

Conflicting city ordinances have turned a concise Minnesota statute regulating campaign signs into a biennial political nightmare, leaving local officials and politicians baffled and flustered, said officials from the Minnesota Secretary of State's office.

The one-sentence law states that in any municipality, regardless of local sign ordinances, all noncommercial signs of any size and in any number may be posted starting 46 days before the state primary. This year, that date is June 29, since the primary is Aug. 14.

"It shouldn't be that complicated," said Patricia Turgeon, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's office. "The state overrides municipal ordinances after June 29. Before June 29, it's up to the municipality. It's that simple."

But it is rarely that simple, said Turgeon and others from the Secretary of State's office, who have fielded complaints and questions since the statute became law in 1990. Amending the statute in 2004 and again in 2010 -- when the waiting period was changed from 30 days before the primary to 46 -- may have added to the confusion.

Longtime Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart called the city of Anoka in early May, asking when he could post signs. He was told June 29.

But Erhart was misinformed. He could have placed a campaign sign on his own property at any time. The city has no campaign sign exemptions that differ from state law.

Mistaken memo

Coon Rapids, where Schulte has been a City Council member for 12 years, accidentally complicated matters on May 22.

Coon Rapids does have an ordinance that limits the size of signs and where they can be placed. An e-mail to candidates detailing the city ordinance -- which says signs can't be attached to trees or utility poles, can't hang over public property, and can't be located near intersections where they'd be deemed visible obstructions -- also included this brief memo:

"June 29th is the first date that a candidate will be able to post signs."

That memo was "a mistake" and has since been retracted, said City Clerk Cathy Sorensen. The memo was e-mailed from the city to at least one Erhart supporter who called the city to complain when she saw Schulte's sign behind his service station on the corner of Coon Rapids and Hanson Boulevards.

Next to the sign, which could be seen easily from both streets, was Schulte's Acura -- with car-length-sized decals showing his picture and detailing his candidacy. The car decals are considered a sign, said Sorensen. It's legal -- unless the car is driven or parked in a manner considered to be a traffic hazard, said Douglas L. Johnson, Coon Rapids city attorney.

Signs can be driven on a public street in Coon Rapids, but they can't be posted without permission on public property, Johnson said. But other cities could possibly have ordinances prohibiting cars with campaign details -- and those ordinances have to be honored until June 29, when state law pre-empts local ordinances.

Schulte said that he has researched the Coon Rapids ordinance and state law.

"We didn't feel it was necessary to move the sign" behind the station, Schulte said.

State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, has been a member of the Legislature for 14 years. He recalled a year in which he was told he had to remove a campaign sign at the Anoka County Fair because it had been placed days ahead of the grace period the state law allowed.

"Now I wait until Labor Day to put up campaign signs," Abeler said. "It's easier that way."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

  • WHAT STATE LAW SAYS

    In any municipality, regardless of local sign ordinances, all noncommercial signs of any size and in any number may be posted starting 46 days before the state primary.

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