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Politics: Judge allows campaign signs to stay along highway

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A Georgetown man who says the three candidates for sheriff are violating the law by having campaign signs in the public right-of-way isn’t giving up on an effort to get those signs removed.

Marty Tennant made his case to a judge last week, asking that Sheriff Lane Cribb, his Republican opponent, Doug Dishong, and his Democratic opponent, Darryel Carr, along with S.C. Sen. Yancey McGill, be ordered to remove signs they have in the right-of-way. He cited a section of law that says candidates can’t use or authorize the use of funds, property or other resources that belong to the public to influence the outcome of an election.

The following day, Friday, Circuit Court Judge Benjamin H. Culbertson denied Tennant’s request that the law be enforced and dismissed the case. While Culbertson found Tennant’s argument valid, and said the candidates “clearly” are using public property to influence the outcome of their races, he had a concern that the candidates included in Tennant’s request were being singled out, according to the order.

He questioned in court why Tennant didn’t include all candidates seeking public office to remove all campaign signs located on public property and in public easements in Georgetown County, and asked how Tennant selected the four he did name.

“Requiring only these four defendants to remove their campaign signs while allowing campaign signs for other candidates to remain on public property would cause an even greater influence on the outcome of these elections,” Culbertson’s order states. “... By selectively choosing which candidates should remove their signs from public property the plaintiff is, in effect, influencing these elections through the use of public property by allowing the signs of the other candidates to remain on public property.”

Tennant acknowledged that Culbertson had a point, particularly in regard to McGill, whose opponent in the race for Senate District 32, Cezar McKnight, wasn’t named in the request. But the candidates are still in violation of the law, and he wants the law enforced.

He filed a motion for reconsideration and clarification of his request this week.

Tennant wants clarification about whether his request was denied because of the omission of McKnight in the original suit or because he didn’t name all candidates with signs in the right-of-way. He agrees that it wouldn’t be fair for McGill to remove his signs while allowing his opponent’s signs to remain, he said.

“However, this is not the case with the illegal sheriff candidate signs,” he wrote in his motion. “All candidates for sheriff were present during the hearing.”

He said as much in court before Culbertson’s ruling and noted the judge could order all candidates for sheriff to remove their signs while allowing illegal signs for McGill and his competitor to remain in the right-of-way.

Because there are so many candidates, Tennant told Culbertson he “didn’t feel it was in the interest of this court to name the multitude.” He picked the candidates for sheriff because they’re seeking the job of chief law enforcement officer for the county.

“I specified them because I believe they need to hold up that law that’s there to protect all citizens. It’s very clear [the law] has been violated,” Tennant said.

McGill was selected on the advice of Cathy Hazelwood, deputy director and general counsel for the S.C. State Ethics Commission, he added. He talked with her about his concerns and asked for advice.

“She said she would go after all the top senators in the state of South Carolina,” Tennant said. That would be an attention-getter, he explained, and might make those senators more likely to take action to have other candidates remove their illegally-placed signs.

Tennant thought about McGill’s opponent after he filed his initial request, he said. But he believes if McGill was concerned about his opponent or anyone else who had signs in the right-of-way, “he has enough power in this state” to be able to pick up the phone, talk to somebody at the S.C. Department of Transportation and get the signs picked up from the right-of-way.

He suggested Culbertson might also consider declaring all the signs in the right-of-way illegal and ordering their removal, regardless of what candidate they’re for.

Culbertson had concerns about that because there wouldn’t be an opportunity to hear from all the candidates and some might have a valid argument that their sign is legal, though it appears to be on public property.

A representative for Dishong argued there was no proof any of the signs were on public land. In most cases, he said, the state might have the right-of-way, but an individual still owns the land. He also questioned whether the law applied to real property and suggested the law was intended to apply to situations such as public officials using stationary for campaign activity.

“I think it’s a lot simpler than what you’re making it,” Cribb said, pointing out that the county no longer regulates political signs, leaving the responsibility to DOT. “I don’t want to be in violation; whatever you tell me to do, I’m going to do it. But if it’s between the light pole and the road edge, it’s highway department property.”

He assumed some of his campaign volunteers didn’t realize that when the signs were put out, but said objects in the right-of-way can be removed as abandoned property after 48 hours.

“If that wasn’t the case, [it] would be filled with cars and such,” he said.

Culbertson said that whatever he decided, he didn’t expect it would have much effect on the proliferation of signs in the right-of-way.

With new people entering the political arena, “I think you’re going to fight this battle every election,” he said. “These campaign signs are everywhere, and it’s not just in Georgetown County.”

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