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For rule on campaign signs, you have to ask

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The next Election Day is more than seven weeks away, but candidates' campaign signs have proliferated all along Durham's streets these past few days.

If it seems a little early for that kind of thing, times have changed. So have Durham's election rules, and some in the political community are miffed that not everybody got the word.

"This is about fairness. No more, no less," said George Lawrence, campaign chairman for state Senate candidate Kerry Sutton, one who didn't get it, while her opponent is, current City Councilman Mike Woodard, is one who did.

Because he, like some other candidates, asked for it. It's like this –

The rule in Durham is, no campaign signs in public rights-of-way earlier than 45 days before an election. Most of the political community has always assumed that meant before Election Day.

But with the advent of early polling, City-County Planning Director Steve Medlin – who is the one person with the authority to decide such things – considers the election to begin when early voting does.

Thus, campaign signs have been legal since March 5, and some candidates who knew that got busy right away – to the surprise and annoyance of some who hadn't asked what the rule is.

And of some who read a misleading guideline the planning department put out making reference to "day of" an election. The law says nothing about a "day of."

Medlin, as planning director, has no responsibility to announce campaign rules. When candidates file to run, they are told the planning department makes the sign rules and are given the contact information in case they have questions.

County commissioner candidate Anita Daniels had a question, called, and was told  she could start putting signs up March 5. She said she hasn't started yet, but, "That's my goal for the weekend."

Woodard also asked, got the answer, and mentioned the date to others at a Democratic Party function, and word began to spread.

"I just heard it through the grapevine," said County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who is running for re-election. At a meeting, she checked with City Attorney Patrick Baker and County Attorney Lowell Siler, she said, and they supported Medlin's position, so she started putting up signs on the way home.

Kerry Sutton, Woodard's opponent for the new state Senate District 22 seat, said the 45-day ordinance is long-standing and she received no notification "that there is any new interpretation.

"I choose not to reinterpret," she said. "I'm going to wait ... until 45 days before May 8."

However, the pertinent section of Durham's Unified Development Ordinance, Section 11.5.1.F – to which candidates were referred by the guidelines – says just, "45 days prior to an election."

The UDO doesn't define "election," but refers questions about undefined terms to the latest edition of Webster's New International Dictionary. Webster's defines "election" as "an act or process of electing."

"So obviously," Medlin said, "once you begin to select a candidate by early polling, that is the date we have to establish the (signage) period from.

"I don't have to make an announcement. It's up to the candidates to reach out to me if they have questions."

Lawrence, Sutton's campaign director, considers that unfair.

"I heard some say it's not especially important since it only involves voting signs," he said. "But who knows? Was it important when Durham's voting machines malfunctioned all those years ago? Yes. ...
"Fair is fair — period — and that's what's at stake. For me, those whose signs went up early gained an advantage. How much? I don't know. But I know our nation's fundamentals are based on the principle of fair and honest elections. I can't imagine anyone arguing with that."

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About the blogger

Jim Wise is a Durham News/N&O reporter and columnist who follows city and county government land-use and neighborhood issues. He's author of "Durham: A Bull City Story" and "Durham Tales: The Morris Street Maple, the Plastic Cow, the Durham Day That Was and More ... "