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City reviews political signs law
Complaints over places candidates posted their political signs during November's campaign season prompted the Ceres City Council recently to consider ways to head off more problems when the next campaign season rolls around.

The city experienced a high volume of complaints about where signs were planted around Ceres, said City Attorney Mike Lyions. He said the high volume of candidates may be an explanation to the high number of complaints but Mayor Chris Vierra said problems arose because signs were ending up in rights of way where they are not permitted.

"A number of political candidates don't understand what a right of way is," said Vierra.

Hours of city staff time were spent on researching the legality of some signs.

Signs are not allowed on public right of way, which is not always clearly delineated. Candidates, for example, may not stake signs on canal banks nor in landscaped median. However, there are exceptions, stated Lyions. The council determined at its March 26 Study Session that it has no problem with signs being placed in rights of way where no curb and gutter exists, such as along Hatch Road near Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. Lyions said signs should be at least 10 feet behind the edge of roadway pavement even if in the right of way.

The council also felt that smaller stick yard signs are okay in the five-foot setback right of way behind sidewalks in residential areas as long as they don't impede traffic.

Candidates are routinely given a copy of the sign ordinance section dealing with political signs; but the council now wants candidates to sign a statement saying the sign rules were read and understood.

Vierra, who was absent from the March 26 Study Session, said the sign rules are somewhat ambiguous and that he even has been mistaken about the law.

"We've been told that what we have been doing wasn't right," said Vierra. "The big 4 x 8 signs - you can't put one in your own front yard. I didn't know that and I had one in my yard two elections ago."

Lyions confirmed that 4-foot by 8-foot signs may only be placed in commercial, industrial or rural areas.

Candidates must have permission of property owners before staking their signs on private land. The council, however, were opposed to a candidate maintaining proof of permission as "burdensome," said Lyions.

The council also brushed off a possible measure designed to encourage candidates to be more diligent about removing campaign signs in a more timely fashion. In Ceres, campaign signs may only be posted in the 120-day period before the election and must come down by the 10th day following an election. Some candidates are slow in removing their signs, Lyions noted, which prompted talk about charging candidates a refundable deposit should signs stay up longer than 10 days after the election and have to be removed by city staff.

Lyions cautioned the council against the idea, saying that "requiring a deposit could possibly be subject to a constitutional challenge on the basis of free political speech." The council agreed, noting that most candidates take down their signs. The option remains of enacting an administrative fine for those who violate the political sign ordinance.