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Bill would shrink campaign signs

Susan Essoyan
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A City Council bill seeks to strike a balance between free speech and the spread of campaign signs. Here, political signs crowd the fence surrounding a home at the corner of Nuuanu and Kuakini streets.

Lina Lin doesn’t vote, but in her laid-back way the Nuuanu resident is doing her bit for democracy.

Plastered along the wall and fence of her prime corner lot are two dozen campaign signs for various candidates, most of them vying for a chance to represent her on the City Council.

"Always people are asking to put up signs," Lin said at the doorway of her family’s two-story, tile-roof home. "I don’t mind. The people will choose who is the best."

Sign rules

» The City Council is considering a measure to prohibit political signs larger than 2 by 4 feet, or 8 square feet, from being posted on residential property.
» Such signs could be erected no more than 120 days before an election or 30 days after it.
» Posting political signs on public property, including median strips and sidewalks, is already illegal.

In the old days local families stuck a campaign sign in their yard to proclaim support for their favored candidate. That’s still true in many cases.

But often nowadays zealous campaigners stake out prominent locations, slapping up multiple signs for competing candidates and hoisting big banners, with or without permission from homeowners.

Efforts to regulate campaign signs in Hawaii have foundered partly because lawmakers have a soft spot for their own signs and partly because of reluctance to infringe on free-speech rights in the political arena. But City Council member Ikaika Anderson is giving it another shot in hopes of restraining the free-for-all.

"We are looking at limiting the size of political signs but not limiting how many signs could be placed on one property," Anderson said, "so as not to restrict the number of political candidates a property owner or tenant may support."

His Resolution 10-31 would prohibit political signs larger than 2 by 4 feet, or 8 square feet. It would also restrict the time that signs could be posted to no more than 120 days before an election and no more than 30 days after it.

"I don’t think we can or should limit people’s choices as to how many candidates they can support at one time," Anderson said. "I think it’s totally fair to say you must limit your campaigns signs to X size. This way everybody’s on the same, level playing field. That also cuts down on the costs of the signs, too."

Anderson, who represents Windward Oahu, plans to hold a public hearing on the measure next month in the Council’s Zoning Committee, which he chairs. Because it would change the Land Use Ordinance, the proposal must pass as a resolution before a bill can move forward.

The Outdoor Circle will be meeting with Anderson to discuss the proposal this week in hopes of moving it along. The environmental organization, best known for keeping Hawaii free of billboards, has pushed for years to restrict campaign signs, citing broad public support. In 2008 a bill to limit the size and number of signs appeared close to passage at the Legislature but was shot down at the end of the session.

"The sizes of the signs are incredibly out of hand," said Bob Loy, director of environmental programs for the Outdoor Circle. "Our guidelines recommend a 2-by-4-foot sign, which is visible from a distance. We keep seeing literally these billboards up there, supported by frames, in a state where we thought billboards had been prohibited for the better part of the last 100 years."

"Political signs have gone from being an honest representation of a family’s political choice to it all being about name identification," he said. "The real loser in all this is the beauty of Hawaii and the people who have to look at all these signs everywhere."

Commercial billboards are illegal in Hawaii, along with off-site advertising. There are no restrictions on political signs other than the prohibition against placing them on public property or creating a safety hazard.

Jon Van Dyke, professor of constitutional law at the University of Hawaii, said federal court rulings protect the right of people to express themselves through signs on their property, but also allow for some regulation.

"The right that exists is the right to tell your neighbors what you believe in," Van Dyke said. "That’s something that I’m committed to and support." At the same time, he said, "It’s OK to regulate the size of the signs and to prohibit people paying somebody to put up a sign."

"I suppose some people running for office think these signs help them," he added. "But the overall visual impact on our community is really devastating, I think."

In some cases, campaigners don’t even bother to ask permission before posting signs on private property.

"Some ask if they can put signs; some they just put up the signs," said Fasa Liua, relaxing in a lava-lava on a steamy afternoon in Kalihi.

The fence on his family’s property, fringed with palm fronds, sported 21 signs and banners, including one candidate for governor, three vying for lieutenant governor and one for Congress. Missing from the colorful display was the family’s favorite candidate.

"We want to take them down and put up Mufi signs," Liua said. But in easygoing local style, he and his relatives have let the posters stay.

For first-time candidates, signs are a relatively inexpensive and effective way of putting their name in the minds of voters. In a crowded race like the one for the downtown City Council district, where 10 candidates are competing, name recognition is an important first step.

Christopher Wong, a small-business owner from Kalihi Valley who is running for that seat, put up signs in May to introduce himself to voters and pique their interest. In walking door to door, Wong said he and his volunteers always ask for permission from property owners. Most of his signs are just 1 by 2 feet, but he also has some 6-foot banners.

"This is a temporary thing," Wong said. "This is democracy. It’s beautiful that everyone’s getting out there. This is my first campaign. It is a messy race, with 10 candidates in all."

Wong said he supports the mission of the Outdoor Circle and would back limits on the size and duration of residential signs.

Lin, whose Nuuanu home is a magnet for campaign signs because of its location, had an encouraging word for those concerned about visual blight.

"Pretty soon," she said, "they’re going to come down."

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