Column: Get Your Sign Outta My Yard

Kestenbaum in 2006: "You get to the point where any manifestation of the opponent is a personal attack on you. Your opponent's sign in someone's yard, My God! You know, it hurts."

Over the weekend, local attorney Laurie Longo brought to my attention a political sign placed on North Main by probate court candidate Julia Owdziej – who’s also the incumbent in that race.

This is the sign that was placed on North Main Street by the Julie Owdziej campaign.

This Photoshopped “art” took as its starting point a sign that was placed on North Main Street by the Julie Owdziej campaign. The alteration of the sign was undertaken so readers could be shown the physical dimension of the sign in context, without providing whatever publicity benefit that comes from having a photo of a candidate’s yard sign replicated on The Chronicle’s website. The bicycle is included for a sense of scale. The tagline is a Southern expression I grew up with that essentially means: Do not ask me what time it is, little one.

The incumbency is the result of a gubernatorial appointment made just two months ago, on June 2, 2014. And that forms a part of Longo’s objection to the sign – because it displays the text “Judge Julia Owdziej” in the context of the campaign tagline “Protecting the County’s Most Vulnerable for Over 20 Years.”

The sign seems to implicate that Owdziej has been serving as judge for two decades, not two months. Certainly if I were editing an endorsement op-ed that included a sentence like, “Judge Julia Owdziej has protected Washtenaw County’s most vulnerable for over 20 years,” I would move to strike the word “judge.”

I imagine some readers might agree with Longo’s conclusion – that because the sign is misleading (and violates Ann Arbor’s political sign ordinance), voters should consider other candidates instead. Other candidates in the race are: Jane Bassett, Tamara Garwood, Constance Jones, and Tracy Van den Bergh.

That conclusion is, I think, somewhat debatable. Some voters will likely consider that message to be, technically speaking, factually accurate – even if misleading – and within the latitude that is typically afforded political candidates who are trying to market themselves to voters.

What does not seem open to debate is Longo’s point that the billboard-sized sign was in obvious violation of the Ann Arbor ordinance on political signs – most clearly the maximum size for such signs, which is 4′ x 3′. [.pdf of Ann Arbor ordinance on political signs]

When I reached Owdziej by phone Sunday night (July 27), she indicated that the city of Ann Arbor had contacted the campaign about the sign and that the trailer to which it was affixed was to be removed on Monday. And on Monday it was removed.

That’s consistent with remarks made by all probate court candidates in response to a question posed about yard signs at a July 19 forum hosted by the Washtenaw County Democratic Party: They’ll remove signs that are in violation, if the violations are pointed out to them.

So in this final week leading up the election, I would first like to encourage all candidates – not just those in judicial races – to make sure they adhere to local laws on political signs. If you don’t know that you’re not supposed to have any signs in the public right-of-way or within 5 feet of a sidewalk (with some exceptions), then please read up on the details.

For readers, there are at least two options for addressing political signs that you think aren’t in conformance with Ann Arbor’s ordinance. Contact the candidate and tell them where the offending sign is, and ask them to remove it – or to explain why they think the sign is actually in compliance. A second option is to contact community standards by phone at 734.794.6942, or by email at ​

Below are the responses that probate court candidates gave on July 19 to the question about campaign yard signs – as well as some thoughts of my own about yard signs, with a look back to a 2006 interview with Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum.

Washtenaw Democratic Party Forum: July 19, 2014

Over a week ago, on July 19, the Washtenaw County Democratic Party hosted a forum for a total of eight judicial candidates in two different countywide races – probate and circuit court. Audio from the entire forum is available here: “Washtenaw Dems Host Judicial Forum.” The forum took place at the Pittsfield Township Hall.

The probate court candidates were asked a couple of rapid-fire questions toward the end of the forum. Those included one about campaign yard signs:

Every election cycle candidates seem to ignore local election laws with regard to lawn signs. All of you are running and asking voters to place their trust in you and uphold and interpret the law. Why should we vote for you if we see your yard signs illegally placed?

The question was submitted by an audience member, but posed by moderator David Blanchard, a local attorney. Blanchard took some of the edge out of the interrogatory by rephrasing it as an invitation to take a pledge: “Would each of you pledge to keep your lawn signs in legally appropriate places and work with your supporters to make sure that they do the same?”

Not surprisingly, they all took that pledge.

Blanchard summarized their collective remarks by venturing that candidates don’t always have control over where the signs go in there doing their best police that her own supporters. Here’s the audio from just that segment of the forum: [.mp3 file of Probate Court Candidates on the Topic of Yard Signs].

And here are the candidate’s responses in written and visual form:

Jane Bassett

Jane Bassett: “Yes, I have put it up on my website, I have put it up on my Facebook, I have sent out notices to my supporters to please, you know, the list of rules first of all and second of all if you see one that is illegally placed, please let me know – we will go and retrieve it. So an offer to the public.”

Tamara Garwood.

Tamara Garwood: “Of course I agree. In fact last night I was out near Willow Run and found one of my signs illegally placed, and of course was horrified. I found a safe place to pull over and pulled it. But I have to tell you, there were seven signs there. And mine was one of those. So I pulled my own and I left everyone else’s, because it’s not my position to pull the other signs. But they are everywhere, and just like Jane, I encourage people to only put signs where you are allowed to put signs, where you have permission to put signs, and I hope people follow those rules.”

Julia Owdziej.

Julia Owdziej: “Yes, I know it’s frustrating with every election there… I wish we didn’t have yard signs anywhere – I know they are difficult to look at. We got an email recently to all the candidates saying that somebody had taken a picture and every candidate had a sign somewhere where it didn’t belong. Absolutely, let us know, we’re happy to pull them. I think people get overexcited who are working for you. Whenever we see them, pull them. Let us know if you see one.”

Tracy Van den Bergh

Tracy Van den Bergh: “Yes. And I will tell you it has been very difficult, because my friends see all these illegally placed lawn signs and want to know why mine aren’t there. And I keep saying it’s because I am running for judicial office and they shouldn’t be placed in the right-of-way. So the answer is yes.”

Connie Jones.

Constance Jones: “Yes, I absolutely would pledge that. The other reason why is that I hate litter, and I can’t stand it when somebody throws something out of the car. And so I think it’s really important and I encourage my supporters to always follow the rules.”

The Psychology of Being a Candidate

Campaign yard signs are one outward and visible measure of the strength of support enjoyed by a candidate, even if that measure is imperfect. “Yard signs don’t vote” is a sentiment I’ve heard often over the last five years of election cycles. But for many voters, a certain threshold number of yard signs is essential to convincing them that a candidate is putting a reasonable effort into the campaign – or more importantly, that their efforts are finding some sort of resonance with voters.

At Beakes and Fifth Ave. in downtown Ann Arbor is an 8-foot by 4-foot sign advocating for Tamara Garwood. This photo has been altered for the same reasons the one for Owdziej was altered above.

At Beakes and Fifth Ave. in downtown Ann Arbor is an 8-foot by 4-foot sign advocating for Tamara Garwood. This photo has been altered for the same reasons the one for Owdziej was altered above.

Savvy candidates will knock on doors of houses with a sign for their opponent. Some candidates use the occasion to find out what it is about their opponent that appeals to that voter. More ambitious candidates are looking to flip that voter to their side. Others are simply looking to convince that voter that they are not the devil incarnate, even if there’s no expectation that the person’s vote will be won.

More than one candidate has offered me some odd tale about why an opponent’s sign wound up in someone’s yard – based on a conversation with the homeowner. Here’s an amalgam of different anecdotes I’ve heard: “Oh, we’re voting for you, but [Candidate A] asked my husband if we would put a sign in our yard, when I wasn’t home, and he felt awkward about saying no, on account of we know [Candidate A] from church.”

So intellectually, it’s easy to convince yourself that candidates shouldn’t care that much about yard signs: By candidates’ own accounts, at least some of the yard signs don’t even reflect actual support for a candidate by the property owner. And yard signs don’t vote.

But my own thoughts on the topic are informed by a 2006 interview I conducted with Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum.

The psychology of being a candidate is, unfortunately, in the direction of … you know there’s a saying among political people and that is, The candidate has a right to be paranoid. No matter how even-tempered and calm you think you are when you’re a candidate, when it’s your name out there on the ballot, it’s really difficult to maintain your objectivity on the situation. You get to the point where any manifestation of the opponent is a personal attack on you. Your opponent’s sign in someone’s yard, My God! You know, it hurts. So anytime the candidate has a role in running the campaign, it tends to be driven by what the other side does. You know, They’ve got yard sign, we’ve gotta have yard signs!

So all you candidates do get a pass – for being paranoid and irrational about campaign signs. But you don’t get a pass for placing signs illegally.

On Election Day in Ann Arbor, you’re allowed to place your yard signs “in that portion of a public right­ of­ way not meant for pedestrian or vehicular traffic, which is contiguous with and on the same side of the street as the property on which the polling place is located.” But you can’t place them there any sooner than 18 hours before the polls open – at 7 a.m. on Aug. 5. So please don’t start placing your signs until 1 p.m. on Aug. 4.

And remember to remove them no later than 2 p.m. on Aug. 6.

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  1. By Donna Estabrook
    July 28, 2014 at 4:50 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Dave, for this information. We just repositioned our 2 political yard signs after reading your article.

  2. By bob elton
    July 28, 2014 at 5:38 pm | permalink

    A few years after moving to our new house, I put out a yard sign for a Republican candidate.

    We’ve never had a trick or treater since. I guess the thought of an actual Republican was just too scary.

  3. July 28, 2014 at 7:13 pm | permalink

    State law also prohibits placing signs within 100 feet of any entrance to buildings that serve as polling places on election day.

  4. By TJ
    July 28, 2014 at 9:11 pm | permalink

    On our block, the houses aren’t much more than 5 feet back from the sidewalk! Presumably that’s one of the exceptions that allows for closer placement. (Makes for easy mowing, though :-)

  5. By John Q.
    July 28, 2014 at 11:26 pm | permalink

    If any candidate wanted to challenge Ann Arbor’s limits on size and hours, they likely would win in court. I don’t think anyone wants to see that but when it has happened in other communities, those limits have consistently been struck down on First Amendment grounds.

  6. July 29, 2014 at 7:29 am | permalink

    I think there was a lawsuit a few years back, wasn’t there? But I think it had to do with “house for sale” signs rather than political signs.