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Monday, May 17, 2004



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RICHARD BORRECA / RBORRECA@STARBULLETIN.COM
In Waipahu, campaign signs are clustered on private property across from Waipahu High School, on Farrington Highway.


Politics fills up back yards
with signs of the times

Some isle residents are angry
about the placement of banners


Hawaii is discovering a new seasonal bumper crop: campaign yard signs.

Because changes to state law make it clear that campaign signs on private property are legal and cannot be prohibited, politicians are starting to stake out their territory early this year.

Signs are growing at a rapid rate in Kalihi, Waipahu and Kaneohe, while political observers are predicting even higher yields in all neighborhoods by Labor Day.

And while signs on private property are permitted, those on the public rights of way or on public buildings or fences or in parks are off limits.

"Candidates are getting their names out earlier and earlier, this is the earliest in my memory ... they are out of control and a blight," says Mary Steiner, executive director of the Outdoor Circle, the citizens' group responsible for keeping Hawaii free of billboards.

Steiner worries that campaigners this year are making bigger signs and banners. "Many of the yard signs look like billboards," Steiner says.

Blight or not, politicians see them as an important part of campaigning.

"They are pretty essential, especial in Waianae," Rep. Maile Shimabukuro (D, Waianae-Makua) says. "It may not be the prettiest thing, but it is cheaper than TV."

For new politicians without much money or name exposure, the yard signs give a candidate the ability to maximize their exposure.

Kate Stanley, former state representative and a longtime Democratic campaigner, agrees that yard signs are a key part of campaigns, adding that where you put the signs takes some thought.

"You try to place them where your voters will see them every day," Stanley says.

If location is the key to campaign sign success, location is also critical to keep the signs legal.

The new state law, passed last year, replaced the old law that permitted signs only 45 days before an election and 10 days afterward.

"The Legislature believes that the right of our citizens to post political signs and to participate in the democratic process should not be restricted to merely 45 days prior to and 10 days following an election," the new law read.

Actually, the federal court has ruled since 1990 that the U.S. Constitution permitted yard signs as part of the right to freedom of speech.

"Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means, a yard sign may have no practical substitute," the Supreme Court opinion said.

In 1996, the state attorney general issued an opinion saying that limits or prohibitions on campaign signs were unconstitutional and Hawaii's campaign sign law was unenforceable.

Robert Miho complained to the Star-Bulletin that several signs for Councilman Mike Gabbard's campaign for the 2nd Congressional District (rural Oahu-neighbor islands) were in the right of way and on public property.

"It is public property, to me this is an affront, and I resent it," Miho said. "Freedom of speech allows them to put signs in their yards, not on public property."

The city agreed, noting that inspectors will take a look at any campaign sign violations.

"It is illegal to put a campaign sign in a public setback. It is public property and we will enforce it," said Art Challacombe, chief of customer service with the city Planning and Permitting Department.

Candidates usually know the law, but campaign volunteers may be more enthusiastic, Challacombe said. But once candidates are notified to take the signs out of right of ways, they always cooperate.

Gabbard campaign spokesman Devin Bull said he removed the signs that had triggered Miho's complaint.

"I spoke to the city and was told the right-of-way boundaries vary from house to house in that area," Bull said.

"Sure enough, it's almost impossible along there to be sure. Our volunteers put signs up on that street where the property owners suggested. I removed three signs because a passerby might think they were outside the property line," Bull said.

Every year candidates complain that opponents are stealing or defacing their signs. Bull said Gabbard has already been a victim.

About 50 Gabbard signs have already been stolen, Bull said.

"Our concern is that Mike's opponent's supporters may try to make Mike look bad by putting signs where they shouldn't be and then lodging bogus complaints with the county or the media," Bull said.

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