Now that the election is over, the town boards of East Hampton and Southampton should move quickly to enact strict laws banning political signs on public property.
It is a chicken-or-egg puzzle to ask which came first, the signs or the foolishness, but this much we know: Such placards consistently bring out a little too much bad behavior among misguided partisans. Like responsible adults who are forced to remove the toys with which the children are bashing each other in the head, the town boards, having allowed the privilege, now should take it away.
In the East Hampton incidents we know of this year, there have been theft and defacement. One candidate is even reported to have cut up another’s signs to use as material for his own. Other signs were illegible, larger, or left up longer than the town code permits, posted illegally in the villages that ban them, and, by proliferating, became an all-around affront to the eye.
Bigger apparently was better, though even the largest signs here were but trifles compared to those in the neighboring towns. In Southampton, room-size billboards went up for candidates for town trustee — yes, trustee, the clam people. Get ready to see more of the same on the roadsides in East Hampton the next time around unless action is taken quickly to head off an arms race.
By contrast, East Hampton Village is considering further limits in its already-restrictive sign law. Under existing law, none can be placed on public property at all; even yard-sale signs on tree trunks are prohibited. Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. wants to go further. He has suggested a stricter size limit on signs on private property to cut down on the clutter of real estate placards, though the law now allows only one that is no larger than seven square feet.
In some parts of East Hampton Town the illegal come-ons are everywhere you look, but officials seem blind to them. Driving around Springs these days, for example, you can see prohibited off-premises signs actually nailed to utility poles. Enforcers look the other way, as they do with certain new lighted signs that are banned. Perhaps no one in town government cares about roadside aesthetics anymore, but, in that case, the law should be amended.
Back to political signs: Other than attesting to the industriousness of certain candidates and their supporters, and helping voters identify which properties belong to party loyalists, these signs serve little purpose. The fall landscape would be better off without them, especially when they help bring out the failings of human nature.
According to the State Department of State, a municipality can place rules on signs so long as they are “content neutral,” that is, they don’t favor one kind of message over another. In this regard, East Hampton Town’s law appears to be unconstitutional in that it allows real estate and construction signs to remain on public property for up to a year, while limiting all others to seven days. Government can regulate signs, but it cannot judge among the messages; all must be equal in the eyes of the law. While East Hampton is correcting this inconsistency, it should double down by ordering all such messages off public property. Both towns should put a stop to the silliness now.