Road warriors: Candidates take battle to the streets

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Signs, signs -- everywhere signs. "Vote for ... Elect ... Re-Elect ..."
   Sign-makers love it. An election year is great for business. But by the time the Aug. 1 General Election in Carter County rolls around, a good portion of folks already have made up their minds who they're going to vote for and have grown weary of political announcements.
   Especially state, county and city highway maintenance personnel who continually have to go along and remove the signs from rights of way. Or utility workers who encounter protruding rusty nails which put them at risk as they climb their way to the tops of electric and telephone poles.
   In Elizabethton there is a city ordinance which regulates the placement of signs, including political, and imposes certain restrictions as to their dimensions and location.
   In residential zones, the total display surface on any single face is restricted to 4 square feet, with a height from ground level to the top of the sign limited to 4 feet. In other zones, the display surface can be up to 32 square feet with a ground-to-top height of 8 feet. Only one sign per property is allowed. Other restrictions include a 5 foot setback from all property lines, with display time limited to 90 days. No permit is required.
   The county apparently is less restrictive. Neither the district attorney's office nor the county executive's office could find any rules etched in stone regarding placement of political signs in the county.
   However, Joe Morrell, division director of Tennessee Department of Transportation's office in Elizabethton, said the state tacks on a few rules of its own which apply to its rights of way in both county and city.
   "It's a state law that you don't put anything on the right of way," but the state doesn't tend to enforce the law during campaigns "because it's just a temporary thing," he said.
   "You can't put anything on the highway going [from Elizabethton] to Johnson City. That's an enclosed highway," or one without access.
   "If you've ever noticed, right before you get to that Legion Street exit, there's a sign there that says, 'End of Freeway.' That's what that means," Morrell said.
   "There can't be anything past the red lights there at Happy Valley to on past the red lights there at Johnson City. You can't put anything in the median. Rusty Crowe put a big 4-by-8 up there last election and my boss had mechanics go out there and take it up immediately, that's how serious that is," he said.
   Signs also are not permitted in the mowing right of way, according to Morrell. "Used to, they put them on the mowing right of way and when we mowed, we'd pick them up, mow through it, and then stick them back up. But now, we have contract mowers and these contractors, they do not do it. They'll be chopping up that steel, throwing it out in the road and causing flat tires. It makes a big mess," he said.
   Sign placement also is a safety issue.
   "They can't put one up to block anybody's view. If they do, they're responsible for it. If somebody had a wreck, then they could turn around and sue the candidate that put the sign up. And if someone calls me, then I have to go pick it up or else the state would be responsible."
   Two signs were removed from the enclosed highway over the weekend, according to Morrell.
   "If they're in the mowing area, we have to go pick them up and we don't have time to go pick those things up. I had one guy call me that's running for commission, and he said, 'You could have called me.'
   "I said, 'Get real. There's 150 candidates running out there. If you think I've got time to call each candidate, you're crazy.'
   "I bring them up here to the garage and throw them out and in 30 days if they haven't picked them up, I haul them to the trash," he said. The TDOT garage is located at the corner of Johnson and Sycamore.
   Sheriff John Henson, who is seeking re-election, said he tells folks putting up his signs to avoid placing them in the rights of way. "Regardless, you're going to have some people that's working for you stick them up on the side of the road. But really, you're taking a chance on losing your sign.
   "I try to put all of mine on private property and I get permission before I put them there. That way, I don't have any problems," Henson said. However, it's not uncommon to lose 5 to 10 percent of the signs erected, according to the sheriff, due to people pulling them up and throwing them away.
   "Somebody that likes me may not like the other candidate, or somebody that likes the other candidate may not like me. Sometimes they go through and pull them out of the yard. That just falls to vandalism," he said.