Whenever election season rolls around in Minneapolis, Steve Poor's job gets a little more complicated. In his capacity as a zoning supervisor for the City of Minneapolis, it falls to Poor to enforce the rules that regulate the campaign signs that festoon front yards.
Sounds simple enough. The Minneapolis Code of Ordinances lays out the rules, and Poor provides each campaign with a handbook detailing the restrictions. "No political sign shall be closer than eight (8) feet from any other zoning lot. No political sign shall be placed on the public right-of-way, including boulevard trees and utility poles," the ordinance states. In residential areas, signs may be no larger than eight square feet and no taller than six feet. Only one sign per race is allowed per street frontage, though a property that occupies a corner lot may have two signs, one facing each street.
Lawn signs are easily the most visible element of many municipal campaigns. They give prominence to a hopeful's name and offer an impression of credibility--that someone believes in that person and his or her platform. Lawn signs are such a vital part of campaigns that candidates vie for prime spaces and spend thousands of dollars on signs. (Which makes it all the more frustrating when they're vandalized; city council president Jackie Cherryhomes says she filed a police report when 100 of her signs were stolen one morning this summer.)
Mayoral candidates work together with city council campaigns, bundling signs together to increase visibility. Campaigns start early to butter up homeowners and get the best corners. Mayoral aspirant R.T. Rybak recalls that he was getting nowhere in his attempt to snag a north Minneapolis corner, until his mother, who happened to be accompanying him on his rounds, chatted up the residents about lawn care and brought them hostas the next day--along with a yard sign.
Smooth talk aside, the most cursory look around town reveals that the laws are habitually ignored. You might find a house whose lawn is peppered with signs supporting mayoral contender Lisa McDonald--certainly more than the single sign allowed under the ordinance. You might see a dozen signs supporting one of her opponents, Rybak, planted on the strip of grass along one of Minneapolis's busiest thoroughfares. You might see signs for Leslie Davis, another mayoral candidate, stapled to light poles. Or yards in north Minneapolis's Fifth Ward sporting signs for both incumbent Cherryhomes and her underdog opponent Natalie Johnson Lee. Or a house with "His" and "Hers" signs touting rivals in the same race.
Technically, such transgressions are illegal--and should result in confiscation of the offending signs. And while it's Poor's job to police them, chances are he's turning a blind eye. "From August 1 to the general election, we're basically not going to look at anything," Poor admits, though he's quick to add that there are exceptions. If a sign blocks traffic or creates a safety hazard, or if it's on city property, he'll take action. "We don't want the appearance that we're picking winners and losers, so we are vigilant on all those complaints," he says. And as Election Day approaches, Poor is on the lookout for the signs that invariably pop up in the public spaces beside highway exits, and the banners that appear on overpasses. Beyond that, he says, it's up to the voters, who can decide for themselves whether they appreciate a candidate's signs.
It may seem a bit perplexing that the man who has worked as a sign and zoning inspector in Minneapolis for 11 years goes out of his way not to enforce the rules. In the past, Poor says, he was more active, going as far as to confiscate signs personally on occasion. The problem, he explains, is that the rules are unenforceable.
In 1990 the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a ruling that by restricting lawn signs, the City of Minneapolis could be infringing upon residents' free-speech rights. "The court said we have a right to regulate signage in people's yards for commercial purposes, but you had to have a much more lax standard around election time," says Poor. "You can't have a ban on political expression. When we unduly regulate political signage, that's not fair."
A law of one sign per race per lawn doesn't make room for multiple voters in a single household, Poor points out. "You run into a problem if you have married couples," he says. "You can't enforce it." The difficulty is multiplied on rental properties, where the landlord and tenants may not support the same candidates.
Poor tries to encourage campaigns to play by the rules, but he balks at preventing residents from putting up the signs they want. "I don't want to get into questioning an individual," he maintains. "Who am I to judge their intentions?"
But he still fields the grievances people have about campaign signs: Employees with the Public Works Department get miffed when they find signs tacked up to utility posts; Park and Recreation staff pull down signs on parkways and other public lawns; concerned citizens gripe about everything from placement to size to wording.
Some, for example, have pointed out that Sharon Sayles Belton's reelection signs group together the words Labor Endorsed and DFL, potentially creating the false impression that the mayor received the DFL endorsement this year. But Poor explains that he isn't going to go out and measure the distance between words. State statutes governing any sign's content (which are also included in the information packet he gives to candidates) don't specify how far apart words must be. (They do ban advertising that "prominently displays the word 'stop' or 'danger'" or that "contains statements, words, or pictures of an obscene, indecent, or immoral character, or such as would offend public morals or decency.")
"I'm not playing censor," Poor declares. "We're not getting into content. I don't care if they say they're endorsed by Martians."