Voters may have sent Larry Kissell to Washington, but to Charlotte city code inspectors, he's a litterbug.
The Kissell campaign has been fined $59,000 for violating a newly strengthened sign ordinance designed to keep city roadways uncluttered by advertisements. The fine was the highest among a bumper crop of penalties – a total of about $100,000 in sign citations issued to 34 political candidates and groups around the city.
“He'd be the winner,” said City Attorney Mac McCarley.
A spokesman for Kissell said the campaign has protested the citation because another Democratic organization put up the offending signs. McCarley said city staff is reviewing the fines and the responses from the campaigns.
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This was the first election to test a dramatic increase to sign fines. Last year, each improperly placed sign cost a campaigner $25. This year, the first five signs were $100 each, the second five were $500 each and the rest were $1,000 each.
When City Council members changed the rules in November 2007, they aimed at neighborhood nuisances: posters promising to buy ugly houses, gym advertisements and old real estate signs.
“Their goal was to send a strong message that sign clutter was not a positive thing in this community,” McCarley said.
The people who buy ugly houses got slapped with a $74,000 fine in the last few weeks, said Walter Abernethy, director of the city's code enforcement department.
The new fines applied to campaign signs, too. When candidates filed, they got information outlining the penalties for putting signs less than 11 feet from the road, Abernethy said. He said he sent a reminder e-mail to candidates during the primaries.
Still, both the candidates and the sitting council members have been surprised by the fine totals. Mayor Pat McCrory, the only city official who ran for office this year, was fined $200 in his failed bid for governor. Some candidates have contacted lawyers, they said.
Dan Roberts, who ran for a judge's seat, found out the day after he lost the election that he was being charged $7,000 for 14 signs. He doesn't know how he's going to pay for it with empty campaign coffers or on his salary as an assistant prosecutor in Union County.
“It's a humongous fine,” he said. “It was certainly a shock for me to open up that letter and see that amount.”
Hal Jordan, a Republican who lost his bid for county commissioner, had his fine reduced from $4,000 to $1,500 after he challenged it and Abernethy re-examined the photographs. Jordan said the fine is still unreasonable, and said he was upset that he never got a warning before the citation.
“Essentially, we're being asked to pay a substantial fine, mostly for signs that were not placed by us,” he said.
Some suggested that the rules open them up to sabotage by their opponents, who could bankrupt them simply by moving their signs. David Granberry, the county's new Democratic Register of Deeds, was fined $11,200.
“Sign tricks are part of every election, but this year it's more damaging to move them than to just steal them,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Even the City Council members who voted unanimously to increase the sign fines were astonished at the amount of money candidates were being charged.
“I don't think any of us predicted it would be a six-figure revenue generator,” said Democratic Councilman Anthony Foxx. He said it would make him re-think how he runs his campaign for mayor next year.
“Do we really need yard signs?” he joked. “I might move to bumper stickers.”