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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Light Snow
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'A real infringement on democracy'
Local laws regulating campaign signs may be unconstitutional
Paul Dombrowski with his shredded sign, which Monona
considers illegal.
Paul Dombrowski with his shredded sign, which Monona considers illegal.
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Paul B. Dombrowski got a yard sign from one neighbor and, he says, chewed out by another.

The Monona neighbor who gave him the Obama sign he recently put in his front yard is state Sen. Mark Miller, who also had one on his lawn. Soon thereafter, another neighbor angrily confronted Dombrowski.

"He said, 'You can't put up that sign. There is an ordinance here and you are in violation and I'm going to call city hall.'"

Two days later, Dombrowski awoke to find his Obama sign ripped to pieces, which he deems "a real infringement on democracy." He isn't blaming the neighbor who complained. But whoever ruined the sign obviously felt he was wrong to put it up. And, it turns out, the city of Monona agrees.

Monona police, after taking a report from Dombrowski about the shredded sign, informed him that, yes indeed, there is an ordinance against it.

Sec. 13-1-221(a)(20) of Monona's code of ordinances states: "Signs on behalf of candidates for public office or measures on election ballots...shall be erected not earlier than thirty (30) days prior to the primary election and removed within seven (7) days following the general election." First offenders face fines between $50 and $500.

Shortly after Dombrowski's sign was shredded, Sen. Miller's Obama sign was stolen. "It's disappointing that someone would take it upon themselves to enforce the law, as opposed to law enforcement," says Miller. He plans to erect another sign when Monona law allows it - on Aug. 10, 30 days before the Sept. 9 primary.

Madison also restricts political signs. Matt Tucker, the city's zoning administrator, says residences may have only one sign per cause per street frontage. (Corner houses have two frontages; most houses have one.) The signs must be no larger than 12 square feet. And they're allowed only from the first day that nomination papers can be circulated - June 1 for fall elections, Dec. 1 for spring ones - to about a week after the election.

Tucker says signs on medians are never allowed and are promptly removed, sometimes with warnings to the campaigns. His office does send letters regarding yard signs when it gets complaints, mostly about sign size. But he's unaware of any citations being issued or requests for prosecution.

City Attorney Michael May also can't find any sign of yard-sign enforcement. "With the other priorities we have," he says, "I can't imagine we would dedicate resources to prosecuting somebody who had a campaign sign up [for] some reasonable time...unless there was some other problem with it."

That's probably a good thing, since both Madison and Monona's ordinances are on shaky ground. In 2004, the U.S. District Court in Eastern Wisconsin struck down a Pewaukee ordinance prohibiting election campaign signs more than 45 days before an election.

"The First Amendment came into play and prevailed," says Dennis Morvak, a campaign auditor with the state Government Accountability Board. He thinks ordinances like the ones in Madison and Monona are "inconsistent with that decision and would be vulnerable in Wisconsin."

GAB director Kevin Kennedy notes that state's law "basically says municipalities can't regulate" these signs unless they interfere with traffic visibility. And the Pewaukee decision, though not binding, "gives a pretty good roadmap" for how courts would respond to other challenges.

James Friedman, the Madison lawyer who brought the Pewaukee case on behalf of the ACLU, thinks it's possible to restrict the number and size of signs in a way that passes constitutional muster. But he doubts limits on when you can put a political sign in your own yard would withstand legal challenge.

So, Sen. Miller (and other Monona residents), do you really plan to wait until Aug. 10 to put up those signs? Fight the power.

Not to worry

According to a new UW-Madison study, the prions that cause mad cow disease are not destroyed by conventional sewage treatment and could end up contaminating water and fertilizer. This may be of interest to folks 'round here, given that the state Department of Natural Resources has for the past few months been dumping the carcasses of deer with chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the county's Rodefeld landfill, from which leachate is pumped into the sewerage treatment plant.

But, it turns out, there's absolutely nothing to worry about!

"The study we did on prions shows we can contain them in the landfill," says Mike DiMaggio, the county's solid waste manager. The two-year study, also done by the UW, recommended that the county put soil above and below the dumped deer. That way, says DiMaggio, leaking prions "attach to the dirt [and] don't go anywhere."

The DNR began dumping carcasses in the landfill last Nov. 15, two weeks after getting County Board approval. The DNR's Gene Miller, who oversees the program, estimates that it's since dumped about 90 tons of deer, of which "3% or less" are believed to be contaminated with CWD.

DiMaggio isn't troubled by the new UW study because, he says, comparing mad cow disease to CWD is "like comparing polio to MS or heart disease."

But aren't both always-fatal brain gnawers variants of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, spread by prions? DiMaggio says he's not an expert; thankfully, there's one on hand.

Joel Pederson, the UW environmental chemist who did the latest study, says the only danger would be "if prions were able to escape a landfill." But the soil sandwich they are buried in makes that unlikely.

"If carcasses are properly placed within a landfill," says Pederson, "we expect that prions would not be released at a level of concern."

There you have it. Science has spoken. Have another glass of tap water.

Murder, they listed

At last week's rap session between the media and high-ranking members of the Madison Police Department, Chief Noble Wray produced an updated list of Madison murders since 2003 and their outcomes. There've been 32 killings in all, of which 18 led to convictions; eight have identified suspects and/or pending prosecutions; one person was acquitted and one committed suicide; four remain under investigation. The MPD reckons it has a 87% clearance rate, well above the national average. This list is available here (PDF) and in the related downloads at top right.

Way to go!

From the obituary of Madison resident Katherine J. Damon, 83, in last Thursday's Wisconsin State Journal: "One of the few regrets in her well-lived life is that she would be unable to cast one last vote against the Republicans in November and would not be around next January to celebrate the day when our incumbent president finally leaves office." In lieu of flowers, well-wishers are urged to donate to the "Democratic Party candidate of your choice."

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