The last few weeks saw an explosion of campaign signs in Missoula. Most were related to the city council races that wrapped up Nov. 8., but several plugged a candidate whose big day won't come until next year, and they appeared where such signs aren't allowed: the public right-of-way.
A number of "Ron Paul 2012" signs popped up curbside around Missoula early this month, including at the intersection of South First Street and Orange. They lingered for several days before disappearing, whisked away by residents who recognized a violation of a city ordinance. Missoula's public works department typically deals with problem signs on public property. The Ron Paul signs, however, fell outside the city's typically complaint-driven enforcement of the law.
"The only ones we proactively remove are very large ones we construe to be hazardous," says Bruce Bender, chief administrative officer to Mayor John Engen. "They're sight obstructions."
Bender adds that political signs appear for a relatively short time and are usually too small to be considered a public safety concern. "We tend to ignore them."
Someone didn't. Missoula resident Paul Bowles removed the sign on First and Orange. It had nothing to do with Ron Paul, he says. He would have removed a Barack Obama campaign sign, too. Private use of a public right-of-way is illegal, and Bowles felt a responsibility to maintain the property he and every other Missoulian owns.
"If somebody puts a sign up there, in my opinion it's a bad reflection on that candidate and their supporters," he says. "It shows a lack of understanding of the law and respect for the rest of us."
Bowles notes a number of Ron Paul signs still out on North Reserve Street, many adjacent to businesses that may not support the Republican presidential hopeful. "Is Town Pump endorsing Ron Paul?" Bowles asks. "You don't know that, but there's the sign, out on the right-of-way by Town Pump."
City Attorney Jim Nugent says campaign signs are historically less of a concern on the public right-of-way. Most complaints the city receives are about real estate signs. But the law's there for a reason, he says.
"I was in Spokane a couple weeks ago, and when we got off at the exit, I couldn't believe how many signs were at the first intersection," Nugent says. "It was just blanketed, literally blanketed, on all corners of the intersection."