Placement of political signs raises questions

A sign for sheriff candidate Warren Gosson sits planted at the corner of State Road and Vineyard Haven Road. — Photo by Steve Myrick

As the election season heats up, town officials in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury fielded complaints that Warren Gosson, a candidate for Dukes County sheriff, has placed political signs on town property, in violation of town bylaws.

Mr. Gosson’s signs have appeared at intersections and on street corners. For example, on Tuesday a campaign sign could be found on the shoulder at the corner of State Road and the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Signs, since removed, had been placed at the four-way stop, blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs, and at the intersection of Barnes Road and County Road.

This week, officials in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury said they had removed many signs and would continue to remove signs.

In a phone conversation with The Times Tuesday, Mr. Gosson, a retired Oak Bluffs police officer, said he was aware of no bylaw that prohibits political signs on town property.

“Anybody can put it on public land, until that right is taken away,” Mr. Gosson said. “You have a right until the right is taken away.”

In an e-mail message to The Times a few hours later, Mr. Gosson wrote, “I had many questions on this issue and sought the advice of zoning officials, Leonard Jason Jr. in Edgartown and Jerry Wiener of Oak Bluffs. Neither zoning official had an answer on this topic.”

On Monday, town administrator Pam Dolby discussed the sign issue at the selectmen’s regular meeting. Ms. Dolby said residents have complained in phone calls to town hall.

“In the last couple of weeks they’ve been popping up on town property,” Ms. Dolby told selectmen. “Every taxpayer that goes by calls up and asks why there are signs on town property.”

In response to complaints from residents, Ms. Dolby asked for clarification of the legal issues from town counsel Ronald Rappaport. According to Ms. Dolby, counsel said that political signs are not allowed on town property. Highway department workers were instructed to remove the signs.

In Oak Bluffs, a zoning bylaw prohibits any signs “affixed to poles, public buildings, benches, trees, or any other public place without permission of the board of selectmen.”

In Oak Bluffs, building department officials removed several of Mr. Gosson’s signs placed near the front door of town hall, according to town administrator Michael Dutton. Signs posted at well-traveled intersections are a more difficult issue for Oak Bluffs, in terms of practical enforcement of bylaws.

“Signs at the intersections are arguably on town property,” Mr. Dutton said. “But the road layouts are very narrow in Oak Bluffs and the vast majority of those signs are on private property, even though they look close to the road. It’s not been one of those issues where we thought it would be a good idea to bring out the surveyor on the town’s dime.”

In Tisbury, building inspector Kenneth Barwick says a town regulation enacted in 1998 bars any sign on town property without permission from selectmen. “I have no indication from my board of selectmen that they are allowing any political candidate to post any advertisements on town property,” Mr. Barwick said. “I saw a couple in Veterans Park, a couple in Owen Park. I pull them out of the ground, throw them in my truck, and take them to the dump.”

In West Tisbury, bylaws allow temporary signs only on private property, with permission of the property owner. Executive secretary Jennifer Rand said she had received no complaints about signs from West Tisbury residents.