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Political signs can bring fines

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Jim Leute
September 14, 2012

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs

Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind

Do this, don't do that, can't you read the signs?

It's been decades since the Five Man Electrical Band sang about signs, but the theme of their 1971 chart-topper seems just as relevant in 2012.

Planted earlier this year with a movement to recall Wisconsin's governor, political signs are once again dotting the landscape ahead of November's presidential, congressional and state elections.

Most are mass-produced.

Others are clever, the result of creativity, hand tools and a little paint.

Some might be considered offensive, and others might be illegal.

"In this election, there are so many issues and so many things to talk about," said Judith Detert-Moriarty, who has a chalkboard sign outside her house on Atwood Avenue in Janesville.

Detert-Moriarty said she tries to change the sign's message daily and, so far, the weather generally has been kind to messages written in chalk.

Her base sign gives the website addresses for President Barack Obama and 1st Congressional District candidate Rob Zerban, both Democrats. As of earlier this week, she'd authored 16 messages on the chalkboard.

Photos are available on the Facebook page "The Power of Chalk."

Recent messages include "Healthcare Not Wealthcare," "Hey GOP! Labor Built It" and "Time to Clean the House and the Senate."

State statutes require that all yard signs paid for by a candidate carry an attribution statement telling people who paid for the sign, said Reid Magney, public information officer for the state's Government Accountability Board.

That's pretty clear, particularly when it comes to the smaller, mass-produced signs that typically adorn yards.

It becomes less clear, however, when it comes to handmade signs placed on behalf of a candidate.

Magney said the handmade signs generally don't require attribution—"Paid for by …"—unless the value of the donation exceeds $25.

A typical 4-foot, hand-painted sign likely doesn't cost more than $25 to produce and therefore doesn't need the attribution.

But what about that same sign when it's duplicated and placed in several yards?

If the total cost tops $25, the group making the signs needs to register with the state and attach attribution to its signs, Magney said.

Some have wondered about several signs along Center Avenue in Janesville. The hand-produced signs support Rep. Tammy Baldwin in her campaign for the U.S. Senate.

None carry attribution saying who paid for them.

The Gazette was unable to determine who made and placed the signs or if more than $25 was spent.

For state offices, anyone who sees a potential campaign finance violation can report it to the Government Accountability Board, Magney said. For local offices, it should be reported to the district attorney's office.

Jean Wulf, Janesville's city clerk, said her office also fields calls on campaign signs. Most center on placement, while some question whether signs carry proper attribution.

"When we get complaints, we will take a look at it," Wulf said. "If there's an issue, I usually call the candidate, and it's not a problem.

"You can usually tell by looking at the quality of the sign whether it's approaching that $25 threshold."

Wulf said signs cannot be placed in terraces, and when placed on private property they must not block the vision of motorists approaching intersections. Generally, she said, that means signs can't be put within 25 feet of the corner and the line that completes those two points to create a "vision triangle."

As for the sign's message, that's up to the property owner.

"We have this thing called the First Amendment," Magney said.

Feeling frustrated and stifled, Lisa Olson took action after the Republican National Convention to erect a sign in her yard on Bailey Road in Delavan.

She pulled an old armoire out of her garage, dressed it up with paint and added images of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan. She then added some light to make the booth glow at night.

Both Detert-Moriarty and Olson said they had initial fears about vandalism to their signs, but nothing has happened. No one has touched Olson's sign or changed Detert-Moriarty's daily message.

"I didn't want a brick through my window, but I decided I was not going to be intimidated," Olson said. "Everyone has the right to say what they want, and they should get involved and stand behind what they believe in."

Olson said she originally thought about a second sign, one that likely would have been critical of President Obama.

"I just decided that doing that would take away from this beautiful sign," she said. "I think we're better served by staying positive, and when you go overboard on the negativity you tend to lose your credibility."



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