In the world of local elections, campaign signs are sacred and hated. They often are one of the biggest expenses a candidate will make, and sometimes are the targets of tampering by competing factions.
For local cities, however, a political sign can also be a landmine.
In the past week, Friendswood city employees removed more than 90 political signs from city rights of way — all belonging to a single candidate, incumbent Councilman Carl Gustafson, who is running for re-election.
Gustafson said the cleanup campaign was spurred by complaints from his political opponents in the election, and called it a “petty” distraction from election issues.
“I’d rather be talking about the issues facing our fine city and how we’re going to continue to move forward on addressing our drainage and flood mitigation, supporting our police and fire departments, and continuing the robust economic development we are experiencing,” he said in a statement to The Daily News.
Indeed, the city’s investigation and roundup of Gustafson’s signs was set off by one of his longtime political rivals, Janis Lowe.
Lowe, a former city councilwoman, was among a group of county Republicans who tried to oust Gustafson from his former position as chairman of the Galveston County Republican Party in 2017. The effort failed, though Gustafson resigned in 2018 for personal reasons.
Lowe said she was motivated by a passion for the city’s rules when she reported Gustafson’s signs.
“I think everybody should abide by all the laws we have in place, and nobody is above the law,” Lowe said.
The Friendswood incident highlights the unexpectedly fraught issue that local officials face during the brief period when campaign signs sprout along local streets: do you pick up a sign, in the name of city standards, or do you let it be, lest it be thought that city workers are trying to influence an election.
In cities that are having elections this year, the rules do vary.
In Dickinson, caution about conflicts of interests and tampering allegations has led administrators to instruct city employees not to touch campaign signs, and to leave enforcement up to the Texas Department of Transportation, City Secretary Alun Thomas said.
“We don’t intervene directly,” Thomas said. “What we’ll do is encourage the complainant to either contact the candidate, or to contact TxDOT or the Texas Ethics Commission, who are the ones that would take care of that. We try to stay out of it.”
Thomas would move a sign that’s an egregious violation, say one that’s pasted on the front of city hall, but otherwise, he’s hands off, he said.
The transportation department’s rules state it’s legal to post signs on public land, but they cannot be placed in rights of way or in medians.
Other cities don’t take quite the same hands-off approach. While Dickinson goes by the state’s rules, which apply to signs along state highways, the city of Friendswood, where Gustafson’s signs were removed, has rules that apply specifically to political signs around the city.
The rules are fairly lenient, Friendswood City Secretary Melinda Welsh said. Candidates who are spotted with signs in the right of way are given 10 days to move their signs before the city acts, Welsh said.
During election seasons, Welsh is the one who fields complaints about campaign signs, and they come during “every single solitary one,” she said.
“It’s usually one of my greatest sources of communication with the candidates and some of their opponents,” Welsh said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
When the city does act and sends code enforcement officers to pull up campaign signs, candidates are allowed to retrieve the removed signs and place them elsewhere, Welsh said.
“We, historically, have always applied the rules of the sign ordinance liberally,” Welsh said.
In Santa Fe, the candidates are advised to look at utility poles when placing campaign signs, said City Secretary Janet Davis. If a pole is between a sign and the street, the sign can stay. If the sign nearer to the street, then it’s likely in the right of way.
“It gives you a good gauge, usually,” she said.
As in Friendswood, Santa Fe gives warnings to candidates who are in violation of the rules. Unlike Friendswood, the city isn’t lenient if signs run afoul of the rules on a repeated basis, Davis said.
“We’d go get it and take it away,” Davis said. “If I already gave them a chance to move it, and they didn’t, or if they put it right back, they wouldn’t get it back.”
Early voting for this year’s local elections begins on Monday. Election Day is May 4.
All political signs must be down within 10 days of the last vote being cast.