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City's political sign ordinance leaves some confused, enforcement difficult

November 11, 1999

By Marie Blanchard

In the wake of last week's municipal elections, officials at the city's Inspectional Services Department and the Election Commission are in agreement that the city's ordinance regarding political signs needs some tweaking or at least enforcement in order to avoid future squabbles involving politicians and their supporters.

Joseph Latronica, commissioner of Inspectional Services, said this week that something needs to be done since residents do not seem to be aware of the current ordinance used to regulate political signs in the city.

"What we're doing now doesn't seem to be working," Latronica said. "No one is paying attention to the requirements so we need to be proactive in explaining what they can and cannot do."

Adding that the past election was quieter than others in terms of political sign complaints, Latronica said that the last week of the election got a little "testy" in one particular race, as shown by an incident that raised new questions over the validity of the city's ordinance and its enforcement.

Specifically, Latronica was referring to an incident on the Saturday before the Nov. 2 election in which police confiscated 11 political signs from Ward 5 School Committee incumbent Susan Heyman's car. The signs belonging to Heyman's opponent, Brenda Loew.

Heyman has said that the signs were on public property - illegal under the sign ordinance - and that she and her husband decided to remove the signs and bring them to the police department to be returned to Loew. Loew later opted to take Heyman to Newton District Court, where the complaint will be heard on Monday, Nov. 15, according to her lawyer and brother Elliott Loew.

The sign ordinance is currently enforced by Inspectional Services, but Latronica said this week that he simply does not have the staff to go around the city and remove all unlawful signs.

"We have always taken the tack that once we get the complaint, we call the candidate and hope the candidate will acknowledge that the sign ordinance exists and conform to it," said Latronica, who said he received three phone calls concerning signs the week before the election.

Officials at the Police Department said last week that they were uncertain over the law and whether it was illegal for a person to remove a political sign from public property.

"We don't enforce anything," said Newton Police Spokesperson Lt. Paul Anastasia. "We would document reports if they were made to us, and then forward the report to Inspectional Services."

Some citizens have asked that the city remove all political sign regulations in the city entirely to deal with the confusion. The item - which was docketed by Board of Aldermen President Brooke Lipsitt in the Zoning and Planning Committee - is not yet slated for discussion.

Latronica explained that there was also some confusion over political signs on utility poles, since they are considered private property.

"Telephone poles are excluded from the ordinance but we are trying to coordinate [what to do with the signs] with the electrical companies," Latronica said.

Election Commissioner Alan Licarie said this week that he and Latronica are planning to sit down in the next few weeks to "toughen up the ordinance" and make it "workable."

Former School Committee member Herb Regal said last week that he felt the ordinance should be seriously reviewed.

"Enforcement must be tightened up and someone should form a task force to rewrite, publicize and make it clear what must be adhered to," Regal said.

Currently, political signs are only allowed on private property 45 days prior to the election and residents have 48 hours to remove the signs once the election is over. No signs are allowed on public property with permission from the Board of Aldermen, and any signs outside polling places must be held.

Latronica said that he thought a lot of the problem was just ignorance on the part of candidates who did not read the material given to them by the Election Commission on the political sign regulation.

"We don't want to take the role of the political bully," said Latronica. "We try to be consistent will all the candidates but we are not everywhere in the city all the time ... Generally speaking, it's just a handful of people who don't understand."

He added that he and Licarie were planning to work on the ordinance prior to the upcoming national elections.

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