Illegal signs: A Treasury of Bogus Arguments

Of course it’s a venerable practice in politics to insist that crass partisanship or craven payoffs to special interests is actually an act of great statesmanlike principle in the interests of American Values, The Constitution, The Wisdom of the Founding Fathers, Liberty, and (if you listen to the GOP presidential debates) The Sainted Memory of Ronald Reagan. So I suppose it should be no surprise that the new all-Republican Loudoun Board of Supervisors and its apologists in the Loudoun Republican Politburo have been coming up with all sorts of remarkable after-the-fact explanations about the Great Principles they were upholding in voting, as one of their first official acts, to kill the volunteer sign cleanup program.

Still, the sheer variety, imagination, and unmitigated bogosity of their assertions have been a bit breathtaking.

Clearly, the local Republican Party bosses imagined they would be able to slip through, with little public attention, this token of its appreciation to the developers who funded their campaigns, and were caught by surprise by the controversy it generated.

There was virtually no public notice of the board’s plans to kill the program, and in the brief pre-scripted “debate” that took place, one after another of the new Republican supervisors gravely warned of the “liability” problems the program posed to the county.

Having been thoroughly ridiculed about that argument in the weeks since—rather easy to do, since not a single liability issue ever arose during the four years of the program—they have been flailing about to come up with other bits of logical absurdity to justify their unjustifiable action. I’ve been collecting them:

1. The law on illegal signs is “vague.” This one was advanced by the esteemed editor of the Loudoun Times-Mirror (motto: One of the World’s Newspapers), which by a remarkable coincidence depends for most of its advertising revenue on the real estate and development industry. In fact, the law is a model of crystalline clarity and simplicity: even an editor could understand it. It is illegal to place a sign in the VDOT right of way, or to affix a sign to any rock, tree, or utility pole in the right of way—period. Every such illegal act is subject to a $100 fine per occurrence. The law declares such illegal signs “a public and private nuisance,” meaning that the perpetrators can be taken to court to force them to stop it. There is a presumption in law that the business or person whose name appears on the sign is the perpetrator who put it there illegally. What part of “illegal” is so hard to grasp?

2. Everybody does it, and such a law “makes criminals of us all.” Again from Ye Distinguished LTM Ed. Yes, I suppose “everybody” does do it  . . . except for those of us who are not (a) Toll Brothers and other developers (b) purveyors of questionable driveway-paving and carpet-cleaning services (c) real estate agents who haven’t yet learned that open houses don’t sell homes (d) Republican political candidates.

3. It’s an issue of free speech. This one has gone out in recent days from the local GOP Politburo, which is desperately trying to divert attention from the fact that by far the major violators of the sign law are developers and have nothing whatever to do with election campaigns. Several letter writers to local papers have earnestly tried to claim that candidates for public office are merely upholding a venerable American tradition and engaging in protected political speech by illegally placing on the roadways multiple copies of signs bearing their names in big letters. (If this is speech, it is the equivalent of that Gary Larson cartoon showing the results of the scientific gizmo that could at last translate what dogs are saying when they bark: a dog is shown barking, while through the scientist’s headphones comes the translation: “hey! hey! hey! hey! hey! hey! hey!”) It’s also interesting that Democratic candidates in the county had no trouble respecting the law, or even concluding that there just might be other forums for political speech (debates, candidate forums, interviews in the newspaper, letters to the editor, e-mail, websites, mailings) that don’t involve (a) breaking the law (b) immorally attempting to convert to personal use public property. Really, why stop at roadways? Why not plaster your signs on school buildings, the corridors of the courthouse, the government center, parking meters . . .

4. The volunteers improperly removed signs from private property. This is the most offensive one of all—a totally fabricated accusation, without a shred of evidence, repeated cynically over and over by the worst violators of the law to try to cover their own illegal behavior. Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) was among the worst offenders; his campaign manager was the sole public speaker to oppose the cleanup program when it came before the board last month, and he (offering no evidence) hurled these fabricated, bogus accusations that there had been “selective enforcement.” In fact, the volunteers in the program have consistently cleaned up every sign without fear or favor; they have erred on the side of caution in staying on public property. Yet Ken Reid, Letourneau, and various letter writers keep asserting that someone-said-that-someone-saw that someone took some GOP candidate’s sign off someone’s lawn—ergo, it must have been one of the county sign cleanup volunteers who did it. It’s cynical, it’s calculating, it’s BS, and they know it.

5. My favorite, from Deep Thinker Ken Reid: Cleaning up illegal signs poses an environmental threat, adding paper, plastic, and “paint chemicals” to the county landfill. This one is so laughable on its face it’s probably unnecessary to comment, except perhaps to point out that the 50,000 signs picked up over four years represent .0009 percent of the total waste stream by weight entering the Loudoun landfill per year, or .000006 percent of the landfill’s remaining capacity.Yes, if we had kept going at that rate, those illegal signs alone would have filled up the entire landfill in a mere 17 million years.

6. County employees will continue to enforce the law. Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) replied to a constituent dismayed by her vote that “the county will still be kept beautiful because we did not do away with the sign program but rather the volunteer portion.” What the supervisors in fact approved was to have a single county employee one day a week gather illegal signs, versus nearly 100 volunteers under the program Ms. Clarke voted to kill. Since the major scofflaw offenders are Toll Brothers and other developers who have their paid crews spread over the county every Friday evening to erect hundreds of ugly signs for the weekend trade—when the sole county employee devoted to the task is off—this is the most artful dodge of all.

So let’s not lose sight of what this was about: it has little to do with the signs that go up during election campaigns (except to the extent that every one of the board members was a violator of the law himself, while their opponents generally obeyed the law), and everything to do with rewarding the developers who flooded the Loudoun County GOP coffers with a half a million dollars in contributions.

It’s about putting crass special interests above the interests of the citizens, and of the county as a whole.

It’s about a political payoff, pure and simple. And it’s a bad sign of worse to come, as the Blue Ridge Leader points out this week in a fine editorial that cuts through all of the nonsense and bogosity coming from the board and their fellow developer-funded hacks in Loudoun GOP Central.