Category: News

2018 Campaign, Election Signs, News

The Glut of Signs: An Election Scourge?

August 23, 2018

We have survived yet another election campaign here in Kingston and the Islands; with gale force winds of change, here and across Ontario.

It was a hard fought campaign, with 5 Official Parties registered in Kingston and the Islands. Added to that was a somewhat confusing new Municipal Bylaw to Regulate Election Signs in the City of Kingston. The result of the confusion and a very competitive campaign was that more signs were planted across the City than ever before, with numerous complaints from campaigns and constituents alike.

Here’s a brief and somewhat unique history of election signs in Kingston. In the 1990 Provincial Election, on a challenge from the local NDP Campaign, all parties agreed to hold a sign free campaign. The only signs in evidence were window signs and Campaign Headquarter signs. As fate would have it, it was an upset victory for the NDP candidate. Chalk it up to “single trial conditioning”; never again would the two traditional parties ever agree to a sign free campaign again in Kingston.

Traditionally, most municipal campaigns in the old urban City Wards had few if any signs, other than mayoral candidates. They were a much more common feature of the suburban and rural townships. In 1991 and 1994 I ran successfully for Council with a sign free campaign in the old City of Kingston. In 1997 I ran unsuccessfully in a city wide campaign for Board of Control for the new amalgamated City of Kingston, which now included Kingston and Pittsburgh Townships. I did use signs in that city wide campaign.

I always have adopted a policy of only planting signs on private property in the urban areas; a policy I continued in 2010 and 2014 in Williamsville District in Kingston. I’m pleased to say my opponent in both those campaigns, Ed Smith, agreed to this. The result was a very ambitious and competitive sign campaign by both of us; but wherever you saw a Neill or Smith sign it was testimony to the fact that a resident, homeowner, or landlord (all eligible voters) endorsed that candidate. This is a much more meaningful message than randomly planted signs along roadways and boulevards. Also, it is much less unsightly.

The vast majority of election signs are made of a corrugated plastic material which previously was not recyclable. Therefore, they were not environmentally responsible. Thankfully, today Kingston recycles mixed plastics. When bundled and delivered to the Lappin’s Lane Facility, the City now will recycle them.

Signs of course are reusable. Some of mine are now 30 years old and if used in 2018, will have seen four election cycles. Candidates change, and normally only incumbents have the privilege of reusing their signs. Of the hundreds of thousands of signs planted this year in the Ontario Provincial Election, how many will ever be seen again? How many will end up in landfill? Also, signs often make up one of the most costly expenses in any campaign, both as a carbon footprint and financially.

There is clearly a psychological boost for candidates and campaigns seeing their signs competitively displayed widely. Indeed, when done canvassing I confess, I’ll often walk or drive around to see all of my signs, and despite hundreds, will get to know where they all are. Yes, vanity does play a large role in election signage.

Municipal campaigns traditionally used to happen in early November. The curse then was you would face the Halloween tricksters switching signs around. So removing them before and replacing them later was advised. Thankfully, an October election makes this no longer necessary.

All signs and all campaigns face vandalism. Signs get stolen or damaged. In the heat of a competitive race, the blame always goes to the competition. There are laws that are sometimes broken and very occasionally charges laid. I’ve always told candidates that it’s wasted energy to focus on accusations. It’s far healthier and a better use of time to focus on canvassing rather than complaining or making false or unproven accusations.

I’ve always represented Districts or Wards with a large post-secondary student population. Sometimes signs need to be replaced or replanted after a Friday or Saturday walk home by some of my constituents. It becomes the routine Sunday chore of my sign team. Frankly, it’s an accepted reality of living in a diverse community, and a small price to pay. But it does make the idea of a sign free campaign appealing. Something I’ve seriously contemplating.

In the last campaign I knocked at a student house and looking down the hall I saw a kitchen wall covered in various election signs, including mine. I said, “I used to own a sign just like that one!” The resident looked somewhat embarrassed. So I said, “If I plant another one out front, you think it’ll stay up?” He responded, “Sure.” We pulled the 5 votes from that house on e-day and they all voted. I’m not sure how they voted, or if it was a guilty vote, but I’m happy they voted; very likely, for the first time.

City Council in March, 2018 passed unanimously A By-law To Regulate Election Signs in The City of Kingston. The result when applied to the most recent Provincial Election was quite confusing.

On the day of the Writ Drop most campaigns had sign crews ready and able to head out at midnight to plant signs. The following morning one campaign headquarters was told by a City By-law Officer that signs were not permitted on public property; (pg.5; 8(e) states “No election sign shall be placed on public property.” Public Property is defined on pg. 3; 1(e) as “property owned by or under the control of the City of Kingston, any of its agencies, boards, or commissions, including highways, boulevards and road allowances, and shall be be deemed to include public utilities….”

So the campaign that was notified proceeded to remove their signs from public property, as defined above. The problem arose when the other campaigns were not notified. And when City Staff, responsible for enforcement were notified it seemed that confusion reigned. And conspiracy theories abounded.

The ultimate outcome I’m afraid was wide open, city wide glut of election signs on public property; the most in my memory.

We have always enforced no signs in municipal parks. This year they surrounded parkland. This was especially egregious around City and Memorial Parks. Respectfully candidates as I recall did not plant signs bordering cemeteries. This past election it was no longer the case. The sheer number of signs was staggering. It was a runaway competition to block opponents’ signs by planting even more signs.

The City clearly needs to clarify its sign bylaw and needs to communicate that with all candidates. Then it needs to be uniformly and fairly enforced.

In the interim, individual candidates need to take a clear, public stand on their policy.

I personally have decided to run a sign free campaign in the upcoming October Municipal Election. I hope my opponents will do likewise. I’ll happily leave 400+ lawn signs in my garage, and rely solely on recyclable and reusable window signs. I again challenge my opponents to do likewise.

There clearly is a better way; either legislated in a by-law or agreed to by candidates. I believe strongly that there is far too much plastic in our lives. We can all do better. And it begins with our individual choices.

This is an issue that has resonated with the public and the media! Take a look at some of the press Jim’s decision has received at the links below.

CBC Ontario Morning – Tuesday August 28, 2018

The Whig-Standard “No sign a good sign for council candidate” – Tuesday August 28, 2018

The Kingstonist “Signs of the times?” – Wednesday August 29, 2018

1310 News OTTAWA TODAY WITH MARK SUTCLIFFE – Thursday August 30, 2018