Oak Harbor tweaks restrictive campaign sign law

Oak Harbor has adopted an interim ordinance that strikes a section of city code which places time limits on the posting of campaign signs.

The ordinance went before the city council at its meeting last week and was adopted by an unanimous 6-0 vote. Not present was City Councilman Jim Palmer, who was gone with a previously excused absence.

The ordinance was the result of a controversy that erupted last month concerning mayoral candidate Scott Dudley’s campaign signs. He was told by a city enforcement officer that his signs had to come down because, under city code, they could not be posted more than 60 days before an election.

While no other candidates had signs up, Dudley’s began appearing around town shortly after he announced in March.

Days after being asked to remove his signs, he was told they could stay up because the law may in fact be unconstitutional as it violates free speech, according to a Washington State Supreme Court precedent.

The city’s legal department spent the past several weeks researching the issue and recommended at last week’s meeting that the time limit be removed due to concerns about enforcement.

There was little discussion amongst council members during the meeting. Councilwoman Beth Munns made it clear that the ordinance was not being “repealed,” that only one section of the code was being removed.

She also asked Development Services Director Steve Powers to confirm that the city’s law had been in place for decades, as there is a “certain part of the community that thinks we made this ordinance and did it for a purpose.”

Similarly, Councilman Danny Paggao asked Powers to confirm that the city’s authority to regulate signs comes from state law.

“So the city did not make a mistake in enforcing the 60 days, it’s just a matter of being challenged in court?” Paggao asked.

Powers said the issue has been challenged successfully in the past, referring to the supreme court case of Michael Collier v. the City of Tacoma. He said he could not brief the council on the particulars, however.

As an interim ordinance, the issue will have to come back to the council for final approval after it’s been reviewed by both the Oak Harbor Planning Commission and the state Department of Commerce.

In a later interview, Dudley, a city councilman, said the issue has not been a big concern or setback for his campaign. The bigger issue, he said, was the limits the law placed on free speech and he applauded the city’s quick action to remove the offending section of code.

“I think the citizens are better off today and have a lot more freedom of speech than they had a few weeks ago,” Dudley said.


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