The ballot return box on the steps of Town Hall is bolted to the porch.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town is asking the Sign Commission to take a look at an out-of-date bylaw that addresses political signs.
The issue came up recently when residents asked questions about candidates signs and "issues" signs on town-owned property, like the town green, which runs along both sides of Main Street (Route 2) from the curb to the sidewalk from Field Park east to Cole Avenue.
Those inquiries prompted a look at the bylaw, which, Town Manager Jason Hoch told the Select Board last Wednesday, addresses such signage on private parcels but is mute about similar displays on municipal property.
"Where we are at the moment is a need to refer back to the Sign Commission to refresh some of the bylaw in this area to get some clarity around what should be there, what we'd like to see there, what shouldn't be there, and do we want to identify certain public properties for a free-for-all for signs, no signs?" Hoch said. "Picking and choosing is obviously a problem."
Andrew Hogeland amplified the last point, noting that for First Amendment reasons any town regulation on public displays would have to be content neutral.
"We need to go back and look at the First Amendment case law on this to look at what we're allowed to regulate, what we're not allowed to regulate," Hogeland said. "It looks like we're allowed to regulate signs in terms of the time of them and the placing of them and the manner of them. But, as Jason said, the bylaw could be a little crisper in defining what we want to allow. That's primarily a sign for the Sign Commission and [Community Development Director Andrew Groff] to start off.
"If anyone wants to be a constitutional lawyer for a few weeks, here's your opportunity."
The Sign Commission, which meets as needed on the fourth Thursday of the month, typically deals with requests from for-profit and non-profit entities to post temporary or permanent promotional signage, making sure that the displays comply with the bylaws on size, location, lighting, etc.
It has been years since the commission has brought updated bylaw language to town meeting for approval, which is why the portion of the town code dealing with political signs on private property also could use some updating.
The relevant bylaw, Section 53-7.4
of the town code, appears to be woefully out of date.
The bylaw on the books allows only "Temporary political signs announcing political candidates seeking public office, political parties and/or political and public issues contained on a ballot," restricts signs' placement to 60 days before an election, requires their removal seven days following an election and limits a homeowner to one zone per property.
It is not one of the town's better known or better observed bylaws.
Multiple signs for candidates running at the local, state and federal level on the same property are common. Signage promoting candidates for their party's presidential nomination still can be seen around town — long after the March 3 primary election and after the candidate in question has endorsed his or her party's ultimate nominee. And political ideas espoused by the most common "statement" signage, like Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter signs, are neither tied to a particular candidate nor on the Nov. 3 ballot as public questions.
None of which is to say the town has any plans to enforce any of the bylaw, beyond, perhaps, restrictions on size or, as referenced in the bylaw's final sentence, the prevention of a "public safety hazard."
Rather, town officials would like to see the bylaw brought in line with contemporary practice.
"It's an old ordinance," Hoch said. "There are times when things catch up, circumstances catch up. What we choose to post on our lawns has changed over time. When this was written, campaign signs were really election focused, and we didn't have lots of statement signs.
"I don't think [the current bylaw] is where the current will of the community is. We just need to catch our rules up to that."
Elsewhere on the electoral front, Hoch used Wednesday's Select Board meeting to remind the public about the town's early voting schedule and the Saturday, Oct. 24, deadline to register to vote.
As of Wednesday, the town had 4,799 registered voters, and the city clerk had sent 2,131 mail-in ballots to voters who had requested them. Those ballots either can be mailed or dropped off at the town Municipal Building (Town Hall) on North Street, 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a secured ballot box near the front door.
Hoch asked that voters sending in a ballot by mail or through the box take the time to follow the instructions that come with the ballot and pay particular mind to the requirement that circles be filled in completely with black ink. Hogeland also noted that the two public questions, regarding ranked-choice voting and auto repairs, are on the back of the printed ballot.
Most of the meeting, held on a Wednesday instead of Monday due to the Indigenous People's Day holiday, dealt with the town's review of police policy and procedures and the Select Board's response to a complaint by the local police union that the board did not adequately support local law enforcement.
In other business, the Select Board unanimously approved a renewal of the town's municipal shared services agreement with New Ashford that sees the Williamstown providing assessing services for its less-populated neighbor to the south.
"At this new price, we're going to be able to provide a stipend to our principal assessor for the supplemental work," Hoch said. "This also covers all the incremental employment-related costs … and retain a portion as general fund revenue to offset the town's overhead costs.
"So this ends up being a net revenue gain to our general fund, and supports the operation of the neighboring community at a lower rate, to them, relative to other market alternatives. Operationally, because they were using the assessing software that we moved to, it gives us a jump start to get more comfortable with that software before we rolled it out for our use.
"It was about as much win/win as I can make out of this."