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Councillors consider updates to election sign bylaw

By Hannah Scott

Published 12:49 PST, Thu January 26, 2023

City councillors discussed possible amendments to the bylaw that covers election and political signs during this week’s general purposes committee meeting.

The city’s Election Sign Bylaw was adopted in 2011 and amended in 2018. It currently prohibits signs placed on city and public property, except on boulevards in front of residential property with the owner’s consent. The bylaw includes a number of other regulations that limit the type of signs, their maximum size, and when signs may be placed.

According to a report to the committee from Mayor Malcolm Brodie, the recent municipal election saw an unprecedented number of issues relating to election and political signs. 

It is noted that the high volume of signs did not lead to increased voter participation for the election as turnout was reported to be very low,” says Brodie in the report.

Issues included the volume of signs and the number placed in a single area, waste related to single-use signs that may not be recyclable, and the inequity of candidates with more financial resources being favoured by “uncontrolled proliferation” of signs, according to Brodie’s report.

During the permitted advertising period for the election, 20 formal complaints were received and investigated, along with a number of informal complaints. Staff noted that it is challenging to manage and enforce election signs, particularly when the campaigns of existing elected officials are contravening the Election Sign Bylaw.

Eight municipal bylaws and policies within the Lower Mainland were reviewed, and five bylaw amendments are proposed:

• Eliminate the boulevard exemption, thus prohibiting placement of signs on all city property.

• Require written consent from a property owner—on a city form—before signs are placed on private property, including properties not containing an inhabited building.

• Prohibit signs attached to trees, planters, and shrubs on private property.

• Limit signs on a single parcel to one per candidate or group.

• Prohibit parking or storage of a private vehicle displaying an election sign on public property.

During the committee meeting, Brodie said the intention of the amendments is imposing limits to a situation that became unsightly.

“We’re not trying to stop the freedom of expression, we just want a clean city, we want to showcase our city, we want to use materials that are going to be sustainable, we don’t want to give unfair advantage to candidates who can afford signs, and we want to be able to more effectively enforce the various rules that we have,” said Brodie.

A number of community members spoke to the situation, with many opposed to the possible changes. Councillors discussed current enforcement of bylaws, rules about signs on business property and farmland, and the boulevard exemption—including what constitutes a sign being “in front of” a parcel of land. 

“I have no problem with us restricting signs on public property, the exception to the boulevard (rule) is for the front of people’s properties, and I think that’s a reasonable exception to have,” said Coun. Andy Hobbs. “People will still, in my mind, be able to have signs on the front of their property. The exception is for what’s in front of your property, not behind it.”

Hobbs added that one problem with the boulevard exception is the specific location of people’s property lines, so the exception might require further examination or detailed guidance to bylaw officers. 

He also suggested the possibility of strategically located “sign parks” on public land in different neighbourhoods throughout the city. This suggestion led to a referral motion that directs staff to comment on sign placement throughout the city, sign material and size restrictions, and the number of permitted signs per candidate per location.

“I think this is a motion that’s dysfunctional to democracy,” said Coun. Michael Wolfe. “What’s great about signs is that people can ask for one and they don’t have to pay.”

He added that signs allow people to show their opinions and support for multiple candidates. Signs can also include the date of an election, which helps keep people informed. 

On the issue of waste created by signs, Coun. Bill McNulty said all the signs he and running mate Coun. Alexa Loo put up were returned to the printer for materials to be reused. Several councillors also expressed an interest in looking at voter turnout, which they recognized is a related but separate issue.

“To me the most important part of this whole set of recommendation is the treatment on the boulevards,” said Brodie. “If we find places where people can have their signs, and they’re visible, and it’s fair and equal, then I think we can take a look at all the rest of it in light of what we have said we’re prepared to go with.”

The referral motion passed by a narrow 5–4 vote, with Couns. Carol Day, Kash Heed, Laura Gillanders, and Wolfe opposed.

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