With Election Day just around the corner, political signs are posted along roadsides and in yards throughout Swansboro … nothing new there.
And, as usual, with the signs come complaints about the signs. Again, there is nothing new about complaints.
But normally, the complaints are of the theft or vandalism variety, and the Swansboro Police Department has had no complaints of either so far, according to Lt. Dwayne Taylor.
But this election is different.
Jennifer Ansell, town planner, said complaints about signs, specifically signs placed by Mayor John Davis, have been lodged.
Ansell said that she and Paula Webb, interim town manager, have fielded “several” complaints concerning Davis’s signs. The signs violated the ordinance in two ways, according to Ansell. First, they were used to create a mobile display and, second, they exceed the area allowed for a political sign.
Laurent Meilleur, a Swansboro commissioner who is nearing the end of his first term and did not choose to seek reelection, said that Davis not only violated the town’s political signs ordinance, but that following complaints about the violations, the mayor continued to violate the ordinance in what could be described as an attempt to be skirt the rule.
Davis attributes the violations to a misunderstanding. In an email to the Tideland News on Friday, Davis said the signs have since been brought into compliance.
Meilleur said he became involved when he emailed Ansell about the possible ordinance violations. She replied by posting the town’s rules. (See related item.)
Meilleur said Davis, who is in his first term as mayor, had employed a sign on a trailer – creating a mobile sign – that was in violation of the ordinance.
Ansell said complaints about the mobile sign resulted in Davis removing the sign from the trailer and placing it and an similar sign on the roadway.
According to Meilleur, they were placed along N.C. 24. But, Meilleur explained in an email, the signs exceeded the maximum size allowed.
Ansell said complaints about the size of the signs came in from the public.
Signs exceeding 15 square feet are allowed only by special-use permit, according to town ordinances.
Meilleur, said such a permit would require a structural engineer’s inspection.
“So, he cut the signs,” Meilleur explained, in an apparent attempt to claim that neither of the two parts of the signs totaled more than the allowable 15 square feet.
In an email to Ansell, Meilleur said that if the signs were cut as a means to claim that each panel is under the 15-square-foot maximum, “That would be flawed logic as 152.267 B accounts for multiple modules being counted together.”
In his computation, Meilleur said the signs – when the sections are put together – are 6 feet wide and 4 feet high and they are two-sided, which equals 48 square feet of area for each sign.
“These signs exemplify why towns need ordinances and why they should be enforced as, in my opinion, these signs are not becoming to the town of Swansboro,” Meilleur told Ansell in an email. “Worse, town employees should not allow a politician to run amuck and imply that town ordinances don’t apply to him (or her). Rather, I believe the thing is to make sure the playing field is level by properly enforcing our ordinances. Please consider this email as a formal complaint and that I ask that the signs be removed until they meet our local ordinances.”
In his emails to Ansell, Meilleur said that he believes it is apparent Davis, after being made aware of the violations by the town planner, chose to find a way around the rules rather than comply.
“John Davis either doesn’t seem to know how to read an ordinance or actively works to get around them,” Meilleur said in an email to the Tideland News. “No wonder he wants to do away with such rules and let (developers) do whatever they want and allow others to add blight to our town. My concern is that he will drag down our property values as a result.”
In order to settle the issue, Meilleur, Ansell and Webb teleconferenced with Cliff Parson, attorney for the town. That took place on Thursday, Oct. 14.
“We spoke to Cliff this morning, and agreed that per the definition of Political Sign under Section 152.016, the four individual signs could not be considered political signs, thus were not allowed,” Ansell said. Parson agreed to give the news to Davis.
Meilleur said that Davis’s response – or lack of response – to requests to comply with the ordinance, put undue pressure on the town employee.
Meilleur, who has been a vocal critic of Davis’s relationship with town staff during his two years on the board, said to Ansell, the mayor is “basically ignoring your professional responsibilities and our town ordinances, and creating difficulties and wasting endless hours of time for our town staff. I think Mr. Davis’s activity here demonstrates why he is unable to build trust with other elected officials – and why there has been such an increase in staff turnover since Davis became mayor.”
In his email, Davis indicated he was merely following past precedent.
He called the matter a “misunderstanding of how the rules have been applied over the past several elections (local, state and federal). I have immediately corrected any violations, as directed by the town staff. They have been very patient and supportive, as I have corrected to meet their interpretation and new level of enforcement. I even had an approval by the town withdrawn and I was asked to make additional corrections and the corrections were completed with due haste.”
Commissioner P.J. Pugliese, in the midst of his first four-year term, referred to allegations that the mayor has not been a “team player” as he decried the episode.
“The mayor’s unwillingness to work with the board is bad enough, but disregard for town ordinances is concerning,” Pugliese said in an email. “It is very unbecoming of a town leader to work that hard to try to skirt our own town rules. “
Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy at tidelandnews.com.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the Oct. 20, 2021, Tideland News.