BEYOND THE HEADLINES: A bad sign

Columnist Richard Rolke provides some thoughts on Vernon council's decision on election signs

In the movie History of the World: Part I, Mel Brooks dons a powdered wig as Louis XIV, a rule-breaking bad boy who does exactly what he wants. He justifies his behaviour with  the catch phrase, “It’s good to be the king.”

This moderately humourous film came to mind as Vernon city council debated election signs and where they should be located.

Now just to recap, the city bylaw doesn’t permit election signs on public right-of-way, but with a show of hands, most of current council decided not to enforce the sign bylaw unless there are safety and liability complaints.

“I think it’s crazy,” said Coun. Brian Quiring of an administration recommendation to uphold the rules even if a public complaint is not formally received.

“It’s like Christmas for the bylaw guys — ‘Let’s yank these things down.’”

Now in past, the bylaw was only enforced if a public complaint was received and because that rarely happened, election signs were allowed to proliferate along the side of roads. But what sets this election apart is city staff handed all candidates a copy of the bylaw and details of where signs are allowed. They couldn’t plead ignorance about not knowing the rules.

Because some candidates were clearly in contravention, city staff recommended taking the signs down even without a public complaint.

“By some candidates, we (city) will be seen as favouring some over others and we don’t,” said Will Pearce, chief administrative officer, if signs are allowed in public right-of-way.

Much of the debate revolved around treating all of the candidates fairly, but there are broader implications here. By shelving the rules for politicians, the wrong message is being sent to the public.

Already I have heard of some businesses suggesting they should place advertising signs on public right-of-way. What legal or moral grounds would the city have to remove them or issue fines given the recent decision of council? Some will make the argument that election signs are part of the democratic process, but in reality, they are selling a product, in this case a person as opposed to a house or a car.

Or consider that election candidates can post signs where they want without ramification but if a non-profit agency hangs a fundraising banner on the MacDonald Park fence without the required permit, it gets ripped down.

What happens when a bylaw officer issues a parking ticket? Do they still carry the same authority as before or has council’s actions on signs undermined the entire enforcement process in the public’s eyes?

The fact that the bulk of current council opted to ignore the sign bylaw (Juliette Cunningham and Rob Sawatzky were opposed) is self-serving as most of them are seeking re-election and some of their signs are in dubious locations.

But onus should also be placed on those who aren’t on council but are seeking a seat Nov. 15.

If elected, they will be the guardians of Vernon’s rule book but they may have got there by bending the law if their signs are on right-of-way.

In the end, the location of an election sign may not seem like a critical issue, but there is a larger principle at play here.

Residents are being told there are two sets of rules in Vernon — one for council hopefuls and one for everyone else.

It’s good to be the king.