LARGO — The Republican primary for Pinellas County sheriff is still more than three months away, but campaign signs for incumbent Bob Gualtieri and former Sheriff Everett Rice are popping up like spring flowers.
Signs on private property are legal in Largo this far ahead of an election, but they are not in some other Pinellas cities. Pinellas Park, Clearwater and Safety Harbor are among those that ban campaign signs until one or two months before an election.
Largo doesn't have such a law, but Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier wants one. There's a problem, though: Those laws are unconstitutional, according to Largo's city attorneys, who don't think the commissioners should consider Crozier's proposal to ban display of campaign signs until 30 days before an election.
"Well, what's different about Largo?" Crozier asked Monday when told of the conclusion attorneys Alan Zimmet and Mary Hale reached after studying the legal history of campaign sign laws.
Hale's answer: There's nothing different about Largo. The other cities just have unconstitutional sign restrictions on their books.
"We feel very solid in the opinion we provided," Hale said. "They (other cities' ordinances) may have been adopted before this case law came down the pipes. Until they're challenged by someone, ordinances will stay in place."
In 1990, a Tacoma, Wash., peace activist named Mike Collier ran for Congress against a powerful incumbent, Democrat Norm Dicks. Collier supporters peppered the area with campaign signs four months before the election, and Tacoma city employees promptly removed them, citing the city's ban on signs until 60 days before an election.
Collier got creamed on election day, as expected (U.S. Rep. Dicks has held that seat since 1976 and is still in office), but he was victorious in overturning Tacoma's campaign sign law. The American Civil Liberties Union represented Collier in court. Washington's Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that laws setting a time limit on campaign signs violate constitutional free speech guarantees.
Hale cited that ruling among several others in a three-page opinion sent to Largo city commissioners last week. Largo does bar political signs on medians, public rights-of-way and utility poles. Those restrictions are okay, Hale said, as is the city's requirement to remove signs from private property within 30 days after an election.
Despite the legal opinion, Crozier still wants to discuss campaign sign restrictions at an upcoming work session, to see if other commissioners support her idea.
"All these other cities can do it ... The people of Largo don't want this city looking junky," she said.
Mayor Pat Gerard said there's no harm in having a discussion, but she won't support any ordinance.
"I pay my city attorney a lot of money to tell me things like that," Gerard said. "I agree that the visual clutter with campaign signs is annoying, and I'm sure it will be particularly annoying this year ... but it's part of the American democratic process."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.