Madison - St. Clair Record

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Wood River could face lawsuit over signs on city-owned land promoting 'yes' vote in tax referendum


By John Breslin | Mar 27, 2019

WOOD RIVER - The City of Wood River may face legal action over the use of public resources to promote one side in a referendum on increasing the city sales tax.

The posting of the signs on city property appears to violate its own local ordinance, and the failure to allow equal access to other opinions triggers First Amendment issues, according to the State Board of Elections.

Further, if the municipality paid for them, or used its workers to place them, that is election interfering, and not allowed, said Matt Dietrich, board spokesman, adding any violation would be dealt with by the State's Attorney.

City manager Jim Schneider told the Record that the state board said the posting of the posters was legal.

But this interpretation appears to come from a newspaper article in which Dietrich was quoted as saying there was nothing in state law prohibiting a municipality from allowing political signs on their property, that it was up to each one.

Dietrich told the Record he was under the assumption that, though he has not heard of any others, Wood River did not have an ordinance banning political signs on city property. Its ordinance on political signs, however, clearly limits them to private property.

On the other hand, the state elections board sets signage rules for the vicinity of polling stations.

The controversy involves the city's support for a proposal that would impose a 1 percent increase in the tax, although groceries, prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, auto sales and gasoline will be excluded, according to its promoters.

Signs urging residents to vote "Yes" on April 2 to the increase have been placed on city-owned lands, including along state Route 111, a parking lot, and the former Wood River Aquatic Center.

The placing of the signs on city property, and the lack of any information as to who is paying or endorsing their placement, and who placed them there, are raising serious questions over the potential for ordinance, First Amendment, and election interference violations..

Schneider said the signs were placed to promote the sales tax increase, which will be for the "betterment of people," and the city is within its rights to do so.

Mayor Cheryl Maguire told the Telegraph newspaper that the signs are no different than those posted promoting a farmer's market or the upcoming Springfest. 

Regarding the mayor's comments, Madison County treasurer and Wood River resident Chris Slusser told the Record: "That is absolutely ludicrous. That's promoting an event. This is a political referendum on the ballot. They are violating their own ordinance. I am friends with the city manager and told him they did wrong."

Slusser said the city is pushing a position on a referendum using public resources and not allowing the opposition any chance of reply. 

Schneider told the Record that the city would not allow a "No" vote sign to be placed on city land.

The city ordinance relating to political signs states: "Political campaign signs announcing candidates seeking public office and/or political issues and other pertinent information ... shall be confined to private property."

Slusser said he advised the city manager to take down the signs by noon March 27, but that Schneider replied that they would not change their minds and would take down the signs only after the election next Wednesday.

Although Schneider said that the city council was unanimous in support of the tax increase proposal, Slusser made a distinction that the council got behind the sales tax increase proposal, but not in sanctioning of political signs.

"This is something you see in Third World countries, where the state rules and the opposition has no say," Slusser said.

He also said he has already spoken to individuals who are discussing legal action, from people aggrieved that their money is being used to promote a position that they do not agree with. Slusser made clear he would not take legal action, and also that he is not advocating a position on the merits of the sales tax, one way or another.

"This is the for the betterment of the city," Schneider said. "A lot of people are missing the point, [and are] worried about signs but we are worried about the community, trying to better the community."

He said people are trying to create problems. but that the ordinance says they can do this. He added that the city is not in a position to seek legal advice currently as its attorney is on vacation some distance away.

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