A March public hearing regarding the placement of political signs on traffic islands and other rights of way was set by the Cape Elizabeth Town Council Monday.

According to the town ordinance, “political signs announcing candidates seeking public office, political parties, and/or political and public issues contained on a ballot may, within the public right of way, be erected no earlier than six weeks before an election and must be removed within one week after the election.”

The council voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on Monday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at the town hall regarding the Ordinance Committee’s proposal to lift the ban of political signs in traffic islands.

In October, the council discussed whether it should continue banning political signs in traffic medians after it learned from Attorney John J. Wall III, of the Portland law firm Monaghan Leahy, that the local sign ordinance might not hold up in court if challenged. At its October meeting, the council referred the matter to its ordinance subcommittee for review.

In a Sept. 25 letter to the assistant town manager and clerk, Debra Lane, Wall recommended that the sign ordinance be amended to either ban all signs from traffic islands, or allow all signs, both political and non-political in nature.

Wall said banning political signs but allowing non-political and commercial signs on traffic islands and on other town-owned property “would likely be found to be a restraint of free speech that violates the First Amendment.”

At the time, Town Manager Mike McGovern said political signs would be allowed in traffic islands until the Nov. 4 election and that the medians would not be mowed until after the election, unless the signs were in clear danger to traffic movement. He said he did not want to ask staff to remove the signs since the right to free speech in the U.S. Constitution trumps the local sign ordinance.

The Ordinance Committee reviewed advice from the town attorney, Tom Leahy, and the current sign ordinance at a meeting on Jan. 16. The committee voted 3-0 to remove the ban on political sign placement in the public right of way from the town ordinance, and agreed to retain the six-week time restriction, said Jamie Wagner, chairman of the Ordinance Committee.

“We think that makes the most sense given the First Amendment law,” Wagner said.

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