City staff and council are working toward a new bylaw governing political signs, but the final draft will mostly contain status quo regulations. (News Bulletin file photo)

City staff and council are working toward a new bylaw governing political signs, but the final draft will mostly contain status quo regulations. (News Bulletin file photo)

City of Nanaimo decides it won’t limit election campaign signs

Freedom of expression, environmental concerns, jurisdiction considerations discussed

City councillors decided they don’t want to try to limit the numbers of campaign signs during elections, but they do want to clean up their bylaws around political signs.

Rules around how many political campaign signs can be placed, where and for how long could soon fall under one unifying bylaw in Nanaimo.

The topic was debated and voted on by the City of Nanaimo’s governance and priorities committee Monday, Sept. 27.

The committee received an overview of how political signs are currently regulated and how those regulations could be streamlined through bylaw amendments.

Existing regulations concerning where and for how long political signs can be placed are currently convoluted because they fall under different jurisdictions depending whether they’re on private property, highway rights-of-way or other public property. According to existing city regulations, signs on public property must be removed within seven days after an election, but there are no clear timelines regarding signs placed on private property. Under the traffic and highways bylaw they can stay up for 30 days post-election, but if they’re on provincial rights-of-way, they have to be removed within one working day after an election.

“At a minimum, these discrepancies need to be addressed,” said Karen Robertson, deputy city clerk.

Municipal governments, Robertson said, can regulate the number of signs and locations so long as it doesn’t limit freedom of expression rights.

Some municipalities have heavily restricted political signs over complaints of “sign blight” and environmental concerns about thousands of signs ending up in landfills after each election. Nanaimo has taken a permissive approach by only restricting sign placement for safety reasons or if they block important sight lines.

“It’s important to note that the placement of election signs is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms … the bar is very high for local governments when restricting someone’s freedom of expression,” Robertson said.

The City of Surrey now prohibits political signs on public property after city staff had to remove more than 1,800 illegally placed signs in the 2018 election and for years sustained high bylaw enforcement costs tagged to labour, equipment, disposal and administration.

READ ALSO: Surrey council votes to ban election signs on public property, highways

Roberston said she consulted with Nanaimo bylaws manager Dave LaBerge, who said in an e-mail to the News Bulletin that election signs haven’t been a problem in the time he has been with the city.

In the recent federal election, he said, city bylaws received a few phone calls about signs being stolen out of yards and one complaint that a tenant’s landlord had put a political sign on the property without the tenant’s permission. There have also been complaints in past elections about political signs possibly blocking sight lines along highways that were resolved with a phone call to the candidate or constituency office.

“In general, we do get complaints about sign blight and the city either calls the sign owners or periodically goes out and removes them as needed,” LaBerge said.

The most popular places for political signs, he noted, are often Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure rights-of-way on the busiest traffic corridors.

An agreement with the ministry allows the city to remove signs from those properties, but doing so is time- and labour-intensive.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said he did not see the need to limit numbers of political signs or their placement.

“My concern about this is … based on considerable political experience in various elections over several decades, I’m concerned about us using a sledgehammer to swat a mosquito,” Krog said.

The committee voted unanimously to have city staff draft bylaw amendments to remove references to political signage and incorporate the regulations into a single comprehensive political sign bylaw.

The committee also voted to retain the status quo of not limiting the number of political signs per candidate. Only Coun. Ben Geselbracht, who cited environmental concerns, voted in opposition.

The new political signage bylaw will be a consent item at the regular council meeting Oct. 4.

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