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Illegally placed political signs may get to hang around for a while 

  • It’s illegal to tack political signs to telephone poles but these Trump signs in Barrington may get to stay awhile. The utility companies don’t want to send out crews to take them down, and the town doesn’t want to remove them and be accused of political favoritism. Courtesy

  • It's illegal to tack political signs tacked to telephone poles but these Trump signs in Barrington may get to stay put because the utility companies don't want to send out crews to take them down and the town doesn't want to remove them and be accused of political favoritism. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/8/2020 4:25:53 PM

The signs seemed to pop up overnight. All at once, Stefanie Diamond saw them all over town, up high, affixed to telephone poles, sometimes 12 or 15 feet above the ground.

There were Trump-Pence signs on Route 126 in Barrington. Others advocated for Corky Messner for U.S. Senate. There was one anti-Joe Biden sign reading “Creepy Joe: Grope and Change” at a busy intersection.

Diamond, a Biden supporter, is used to seeing Trump signs on the ground. But she figured the ones on the poles were illegally placed. She was right.

New Hampshire state law prohibits campaign signs from being placed on utility poles. “Signs shall not be placed on or affixed to utility poles or highway signs,” reads RSA 664:17 reads. Breaking that law can lead to a misdemeanor charge.

“You don’t go put a sign on someone else’s property. This is supposed to be a country where we’re allowed free expression of speech. But it’s got to be with respect, and it has to follow the law,” Diamond said.

Even though these Trump signs are illegal, they may get to stay awhile, perhaps even until after the election. The utility companies don’t want to send out crews to take them down and the town doesn’t want to remove them and be accused of political favoritism.

Diamond tried appealing to town officials and local police to remove the signs. She called the power company, Eversource. Days later, progress on actually removing those signs is slow, and stakeholders are reluctant to make the first move.

Barrington town officials are wary of wading into a political fracas by appearing to favor one side over another and have put the onus on the owners of the poles to remove the Trump signs: the utility companies.

The utilities – Eversource and Consolidated Communications – uninterested in sending crews to deal with every pole in the state, say they would rather the town figure out the removal itself.

No one knows who put the signs up in the first place. But the outcome is the same: Days after Diamond asked, the Trump signs have not been removed.

A spokesman for Eversource, William Hinkle, said the law is clear. “It is against state law to post advertisements – political or otherwise – on utility poles in New Hampshire . . ., and signs on utility poles may also violate local ordinances,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Consolidated Communications also stands in opposition to the signs.

“We do not condone the placement of political signs, or any signage, on our poles and the signs do not reflect the company’s political views,” a spokeswoman, Shannon Sullivan, told the Monitor.

Yet when it comes to the removal of those signs, the companies’ policies are complicated. Both say they rely on the help of local officials.

Eversource is responsive to complaints, Hinkle said.

“When a community brings a concern to us about signs on the poles that we own and maintain, we work with local government and law enforcement to respond to those concerns and address any unauthorized attachments,” he said Tuesday.

“Specific to Barrington, we have been in contact with town officials to authorize and coordinate the safe removal of political signs on our poles in the town,” Hinkle said.

Barrington town manager Conner MacIver said the town had not had a direct conversation with Eversource about the Trump signs on the poles. The last conversation he had about signs on utility poles had to do with the annual appearance of American flags, MacIver said.

Consolidated’s policy is similar. The company strives to quickly remove any signs that pose safety problems, Sullivan said.

But absent a safety concern, the company says it doesn’t have the resources to tackle every sign immediately.

“We are focused on supporting our customers and ensuring they stay connected to critical services, and this means daily workload may not always allow for the monitoring of our poles for signage,” Sullivan said.

In Barrington, the company is aware of the Trump signs but unaware of who posted them, Sullivan said. In the meantime, Consolidated says it is waiting on instruction from local officials.

“During a conversation with a representative of our company, the Barrington deputy chief confirmed these signs pose no safety issues and that he would pass along the information to the board of selectman,” Sullivan said.

According to the companies, it’s up to the towns to demand action on the removal of signs from poles. MacIver, the town administrator, doesn’t quite see it that way. Moving ahead without the utilities’ explicit instructions could lead to a legal liability, he said.

“The town’s current position is we don’t see it as our place in exposing ourselves to potential liability in terms of what’s in the best interest of the town,” he said. “That said, if Eversource complained to the town about the illegal activity, we would certainly be responsive to that complaint.”

MacIver compared the situation to that of a private lawn. If someone placed political signs on another person’s lawn in the middle of the night, the town would not take action on its own. It would be up to the owner of the lawn to first raise the complaint to local law enforcement and ask them to take action.

Likewise, even though state statute explicitly prohibits political signs on any telephone pole, MacIver argued that the utility companies must press the town to act on those signs before it can do anything.

To MacIver, the complaint is an example of current political tensions.

“For me, it’s not surprising that this complaint is based in a political sign, but the tough part for us is there’s signs (on poles) all year round,” he said. “You don’t hear folks complain about the peach orchard signs or the yard sale signs. What that tells me is that people are more unhappy about the political message being shared than the fact it’s on a utility pole.”

For now, the signs are still up there – out of reach for Diamond, but not out of mind. It’s an example, she believes, of a broader national trend.

“This country has become so divisive,” she said. “And lawlessness has been encouraged, not discouraged.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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