Saanich council debates election signs with no election scheduled

As the campaign for the vacant seat on council gathers momentum, Coun. Leif Wergeland questions Saanich’s existing administrative policy concerning election campaign signs.

Election signs cannot appear on Saanich municipal property until the first day of the nomination period (46 days before general voting day) and must be removed four days after the election vote, according to Saanich’s existing administrative policy. Saanich, however, does not specifically regulate election signs that appear on private property prior to the nomination period that govern election signs on private property.

As Ken Watson, director of legislative services, told council, Saanich regulates signs of any kind on private property on a complaint basis.

“Our policy currently does not regulate private property,” he said. “We have a sign bylaw, but it does not specifically address temporary signs of the political flavour. It does address temporary signs. So I suppose if someone could put up a sign and have it there for a very long time, we could address it under our sign bylaw. But our sign bylaw does not particularly address the existence of…a political sign.”

This apparent gap has Wergeland concerned. “If Coun. Murdock puts a sign on private property, I can complain, staff can go out, have it removed,” said Wergeland. “But if nobody complains, no problems. That is not fair as far as signage goes. And I guess from my perspective, clarity and fairness for everyone would be no election signs up, period. I would feel more comfortable.”

Wergeland made these comments as council debated a notice of motion from Coun. Susan Brice calling on the district to look into election signs. “With the upcoming byelection, there is an opportunity to set a standard that all candidates will be expected to follow and this would become the standard for future elections in Saanich,” it read.

Staff, in turn, alerted her to recent revisions to Saanich’s administrative policy. “With respect to municipal elections, signs would be permitted to be placed beginning the first day of the nomination period [46 days before general voting day] and must be removed four days after the election vote,” it now reads.

Brice said that she is not against signs. “I totally support election signs,” she said. “However, I think we all see and I have heard from the community about this visual clutter. I was reminded during the last provincial election, when there were four candidates, about what can happen over a period of time.”

Coun. Vickie Sanders supported the measure, noting that that election signs during the last municipal election appeared in July and August, a claim disputed by Coun. Fred Haynes.

“My recall is that, if we are talking about signs going up early, mine went up on Labour Day, which is September, and I think I was one of the first out of the gates,” he said. “So in the minutes, I will not accept that July and August was the time when signs went up.”

Sanders did not appear to back down from the claim, prompting Mayor Richard Atwell to intervene. “No one’s campaign is on trial here.”

This discussion took place about three months before the actual vote to fill the seat left vacant following the death of former councillor Vic Derman in March.

While council has yet to schedule a date for the byelection, it will likely take place in September.

Two candidates, Natalie Chambers, a local farmer and food-security activist, and Rebecca Mersereau, who nearly won a council seat in 2014, have already declared their candidacy.

Notably, both entered the campaign with the promise to defend the political legacy of Derman, who last week posthumously received the award for Long Term Achievement for his “leadership in environmental stewardship and advocacy for climate change action” during the 2017 Saanich Environmental Awards.

Several facts about what lies ahead remain uncertain, starting with the actual cost of the byelection.

“As there is still some planning work to be done, we do not have a cost figure at this time,” said Tara Zajac, a spokesperson for the district, last month. “However, we established funding of $173,500 in the financial plan for the 2017 byelection.”

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed Sanders’ comments to Coun. Susan Brice. We regret the error.

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