The City of Hamilton staff-initiated overhaul of the City’s election sign regulations is fatally flawed because of vague language and a lack of due process in exercising new powers being assigned to city staff under a proposed administrative penalty system.
The creation of an election sign by-law separate from the City’s lengthy signs and advertising regulations is a good idea. A clear separate bylaw is useful to everyone involved: candidates, citizens, and city staff who must referee disputes.
The concern with this new bylaw is the City seeks to exercise new powers to regulate political speech that are not lawfully granted to them by the Province.
Potential to Ban Citizen Issues Signs
Under the new bylaw, the City Clerk can order the removal of signs “influencing electors to vote for or against an issue associated with a Candidate, Election or political party.”
The Province clearly states the Municipal Elections Act does not regulate “advertising about an issue”, ” For example, signs saying “Support local businesses” or “Keep the waterfront green” would not be third party advertising, even if a candidate has made those issues part of their campaign.” [Emphasis added]
The City Clerk can issue an automatic $50 fine for each sign they deem to be inappropriately “influencing”. There is no mechanism for appeal, nor does the City Clerk have to provide reasons for an order.
As presently written, the City Clerk can order the removal of lawn signs such as those used by the Stop Sprawl HamOnt campaign again urban boundary expansion, and issue a $50 fine for each sign.
City Council needs to remove this vague language, it is not consistent with the MEA.
Clarifying Rules, Adding Poorly Defined New Rules
The new by-law adds clarifications to regulations prohibiting candidates from displaying their signs on public lands, making it easier for the City to issue fines to candidates who place their signs on public lands – such as the common practice of plastering roadway medians with signs on voting day.
This is good.
The changes include clarifying that candidates can stand alongside roadways waving their signs. Technically, holding signs on public land violated the language of the existing sign bylaw.
Common sense obviously applies to the intent of the old bylaw, prohibiting candidates from planting signs not holding them for a few hours. Sadly, common sense is all too uncommon. Surely the City dealt with complaints regarding what was a technical violation.
The new bylaw adds a prohibition banning any election signs “within 100 metres of any Voting Place on Voting Day or on an Advance Voting Day.”
As written, City managers are required to fine residents $200 if they have a campaign lawn sign and live within 100 metres of a “Voting Place.” As written, a sign in your window, within 100 metres, is a separate $200 fine.
This is where broad vague language is problematic.
The intent, it seems (we do not know because the reasoning is a secret “confidential” report only available to Council), is to ensure the appearance of neutrality at polling locations, and strongly discourage candidates from plastering signs nearby.
How does one know if they live within 100 metres of a Voting Place?
How the City is measuring 100 metres is not included in the bylaw. Is it 100 metres from the front entrance of a building? 100 metres from the building? Or 100 metres from the property line of the voting place?
I’ll use Glendale Secondary School in Ward 5.
The School Board property is effectively the entire city block, minus the city park. 100 metres from the front door encompasses homes on nearby streets that are not visible from the school.
100 metres from the building, now homes nearly 200 metres from the front door are prohibited from having lawn signs. 100 metres from the property line, homes nearly 300 metres from the front doors technically could be issued fines.
Absurd, I know, the true absurdity is how poorly written and thought-out this bylaw is.
Council needs to send the draft back to staff, then them to hold public consultations, and return with a better defined and restrained bylaw.
Most importantly, Council must make the “confidential” staff reports public. There should be no secrecy involved in election rules.