|Political Sign Removal Sparks Question in Williamstown|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
01:38AM / Wednesday, October 28, 2020
|Signs promoting Mount Greylock School Committee candidates on the Town Green along Main Street (Route 2) in Williamstown.|
Updated Wednesday afternoon to clarify that the sidewalk is not the limit of the Town Green.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The one local race on the Nov. 3 ballot has led to accusations of candidate sign stealing.
But the candidate in question says she does not have enough information to be sure what is going on or even whether the sign's disappearance is politically motivated.
That is in part because the scene of the alleged crime was not a resident's lawn but the Town Green, a municipally owned stretch that runs along both sides of Main Street (Route 2), including in front of private residences located east of the Williams College campus to Cole Avenue.
Earlier this fall, a supporter of Elisabeth Beck, a candidate in the only contested election for the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, noticed that one of her campaign signs that previously had been on the Town Green had been removed.
The green runs from the curb to at least the sidewalk in that stretch of road.
That supporter, Thomas Bartels, notified iBerkshires.com and took the initiative to place a new sign on the town-owned land with a note attached at the bottom reading, "DO NOT REMOVE: This sign is located on public land, the Williamstown Town Green! Removal is a criminal offense."
On Monday, Bartels reported that one of the labeled signs also had been removed.
Beck, who last week reported she had not received any word from supporters about signs they placed disappearing, on Tuesday expressed some ambivalence about the removals.
"I'm inclined to think that signs are coming down because of confusion over what's public and what's private rather than an effort to hurt my campaign," Beck said.
"I don't feel like I have enough information to know which of those things it is. And It's not a fight I want to put emotional energy into. I don't think it will serve positive energy around me or my candidacy to make much of it."
Williamstown Community Development Director Andrew Groff said confusion is a possibility.
"The section of Town Green Mr. Bartels is referring to is, to many folks, their front lawn," Groff said. "They may not own it, but many of these folks care for that land and view it as the entrance to their properties. It's entirely possible that a homeowner who may or may not be in support of Ms. Beck is removing the signs because they don't want to be perceived as being in support of any particular candidate."
Groff said the town has not received any complaints about signs being removed and has not done any removals of its own.
Likewise Police Chief Kyle Johnson confirmed that, going back as far as July 1, the Williamstown Police log shows no criminal complaints about sign removal.
Johnson confirmed that removal of a sign by someone other than the owner "could be a criminal act, depending on intent."
In answer to a question about whether materials of any kind left on public property could be considered "abandoned property," Johnson said that could be a possible line of defense in a criminal proceeding.
Civilly, it is debatable just how town land can be used to promote political causes. It is one of the issues that Groff is hoping an improved town bylaw can resolve.
"Our sign bylaw is truly silent on this issue," Groff said. "I think the issue is particularly clear cut on private property. My quotes in your write-up
on our Sign Commission meeting last week summarize how this works on private land well. Public land, however, is different.
"While our bylaw is silent, in my recent reading, I believe the federal courts have preserved the right for municipalities to ban all signage from public lands as long as such a regulation is content-neutral."
Of course, that would be just one option. The Sign Commission aims to draft an updated bylaw proposal that ultimately would need approval by town meeting.