Signs dot city well in advance of legal limit

Political signs have been popping up in Lafayette more and more in recent weeks for the upcoming fall elections: all of them in violation of the city’s sign regulations.

A little-known section of the city’s code prohibits political yard signs on public property, such as medians, and allows the signs on private property only within the three months of balloting, which for the Nov. 4 election would be late July if the timeline was pushed back for the Oct. 21 start date for early voting.

“They can only do it 90 days before the election, so they are way ahead,” said Lafayette City-Parish Director of Planning, Zoning and Development Eleanor Bouy, who said her staff is sending letters to local candidates asking them to comply with the sign law.

Bouy said she and her staff began noticing the first political signs just after Easter and have watched the number grow.

“In our experience, this is some of the earliest advertising we have seen,” she said.

Most of the signs around the city are for two of the most active races this year, the contests between incumbent 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson and challenger Keith Stutes and between incumbent Lafayette City Marshal Earl “Nickey” Picard and challenger Brian Pope.

Picard said he was not aware of the regulations on political advertising before being contacted by The Acadiana Advocate and, after speaking with Planning, Zoning and Development, has decided to remove his signs until closer to the election.

“I have three signs. They are on private property, and they will be taken down,” he said. “We never had anything told to us.”

His opponent, Pope, has several signs around the city but declined comment when asked whether he was aware of the regulations on political advertising, explaining that he was on vacation with his family and did not have time to research the issue.

Harson said he learned of the city’s regulations earlier this year but decided to begin distributing his campaign signs anyway when supporters questioned whether he was running because they saw only signs from his challenger, Keith Stutes.

“I did not file any complaint since such would probably have been portrayed as unsportsmanlike, and I felt that since they were so obvious that the administration would have taken action,” Harson said in an email. “However, it didn’t appear that anything was being done, and in fact probably a great majority of the signs in Lafayette right now are probably in violation of some provision of the ordinance, but they remain.”

Harson said he would comply if the city requested that he remove the signs “and will assume that my opponent will do likewise.”

Stutes, for his part, said he plans to ask the City-Parish Council to revisit the sign law, arguing the restrictions strike at free speech.

“We look forward to raising the issue before the Lafayette City-Parish Council, asking for a fresh review of the ordinance, and seeking public comment and input on this important free speech issue. We will, of course, comply with their decision,” Stutes said in a written statement issued through campaign manager Joe Castille.

Castille cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down blanket restrictions on political signs.

The Supreme Court case did not directly address regulations that ban almost all temporary signs but does make an exception to allow political signs for a certain period — as Lafayette’s does — but at least one lower federal court has struck down political sign regulations similar to Lafayette’s.

Castille also said he doesn’t believe political signs are appearing any earlier this year than in some prior election seasons.

Bouy said no decision will be made on enforcement actions until the candidates have time to comply after being given notice of the city’s regulations.