Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Sign bylaw one sign of diminishing democracy

First published: April 24, 2005

Port Hope council recently introduced a proposal to charge a$57 fee to people wanting to place a sign in the front yard of private homes. It is the latest in a growing list of abuses by councillors to prevent basic freedoms in West Northumberland.

Sign bylaws have a long history in municipalities. The purpose is usually to control commercial signage in an effort to prevent visual pollution and abuses. Driving down a street, it is interesting to note the incredible number of messages; everything from street signs to speed is posted, along with advertisements and directions. Many times, it is the municipalities’ own signage that is more plentiful and distracting than any other.

But there are also the physical aspects of signage that must be controlled. Some larger commercial signs, which sit high in the air, must meet critical engineering standards so they do not blow over or fall down. Then, there is sign placement, which ensure there are a plethora of sandwich boards on the sidewalks blocking our route or an array of ugly mobile signs covering any available free space along roadsides.

Also, there is the heritage aspect, a particularly important one in our community, dictating the colour, size and lettering to match the historic streetscapes. Port Hope was one of the first to have a heritage sign bylaw in Ontario back in 1981, but Cobourg created its bylaw in 1994.

But the extension of this bylaw into residential areas cannot be tolerated. Certainly, councils should control the use of mobile signs and commercial style signs by homeowners or home offices. And the content of signs should not be hateful, racist or degrading. But individuals should generally be allowed to post whatever they please at no cost.

It is difficult to separate the issues from the recent campaign by Families Against Radiation Exposure as a way to silence council’s critics. Arguments by Planning Director Spencer Hutchinson about limiting unnecessary signage and Chief Building Official Ken Andrus are laughable. They fail any credibility test in a second because council is charging a fee. There is no other way to interpret this other than a wet blanket on freedom of expression and an attempt by Big Brother for control.

The absurdity of the bylaw would be clear come if a federal election is called this spring. It is ludicrous to think council would try to charge people for putting up political signs on their front lawns. Lawyers for the campaigns would have council in front of a judge so fast, there wouldn’t be time to blink. The Supreme Court would laugh the bylaw out of the building.

But while ridiculous, it demonstrates a troubling trend. It wasn’t more than a year ago, Port Hope Deputy Mayor Lynda Thompson was asking council to charge $10 for agendas for members of the public. She also lambasted citizens for making public presentations, saying they should be tightly regulated. It was not long after Cobourg councillor Dean McCaughey was making similar suggestions after several presentations by a local real estate agent promoting the use of an under-used office building for the police force. (Cobourg also charges a fee to citizens for its full agenda)

All too often members of the public come before council seeking to speak their minds on a host of issues. Yet, it is not unusual for politicians to ignore, insult and attack these citizens who have dissenting opinions. The only time councillors smile is when somebody is going to donate money or provide a public relations opportunity. Municipalities should be encouraging discourse, not stifle it. Enough is enough. Now, these elected officials want to reach outside council chambers on to private property to control expression. This is unacceptable in a modern democracy.

The sign bylaws must be reviewed. Any attempt to charge a fee must be killed. But far more importantly, municipal politicians in West Northumberland should give their heads a shake. These efforts to undermine our democratic rights should be defended, not attacked. Port Hope is only the latest perpetrator.

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