By Desiree Williams
Rick Sharp, a Carmel resident running for an open seat on the Hamilton County Council, filed a lawsuit Feb. 20 alleging the county’s new sign ordinance limits political free speech.
County commissioners voted to enact the new ordinance Feb. 12. It prohibits the placement of commercial and non-commercial signs in the public rights-of-way because of safety concerns for drivers. Violators are subject to a $500 fine per sign.
Sharp said the ordinance limits the chances of lesser-financed candidates and the ability to develop name recognition.
“I was motivated by a sense of fairness,” he said. “I believe that the ordinance is unconstitutional as written. More importantly, I think it’s an overt attempt on the part of the commissioners to limit the political speech of candidates that they are not supporting.”
Sharp is running for the open seat against Carmel Clerk-Treasurer Christine Pauley and Westfield resident Ken Alexander, who previously was the director of Grand Park.
Pauley said that the county’s sign ordinance is within state law and that she doesn’t expect it to impact her campaign strategy.
“For many election cycles, candidates have relied on elevating their name recognition by placing signs in public right of ways thus the neglecting the need for personal connection with the voters,” she said. “Since I am a hard worker who connects with voters by going door to door and attending various functions to get my message out to the voters plus getting a sign placed in yards, the sign ordinance will not affect my campaign. The candidates just need to work a little harder to earn the position of a public office.”
Alexander said he supports safer ways to build name recognition without causing a “public hazard.”
“No one is taking away a person’s right to voice their support for a candidate on private property or utilizing the limitless opportunities available on social media,” Alexander said. “This is about the use of public property, specifically designated for public transportation, to be a billboard for special interest. While I’m a strong believer in First Amendment rights, I’d point out that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believes that even the smallest unplanned signage in right-of-ways pose a real threat to the public, due to driver inattention.”
The ordinance has been in committee since 2013, Sharp said, so he also was concerned why there was a big push for it now.
Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt said the board received so many complaints from business owners and residents about sign clutter during the 2016 primary election that the issue became a priority.
Commissioner Steve Dillinger, who historically discouraged such ordinances, switched positions because he said this is something that needs to be done in the public interest.
“I changed my mind basically because of abuse,” Dillinger said. “People just went way, way overboard.”
Both commissioners said Sharp’s lawsuit is frivolous and a publicity stunt. They cited Sharp’s approval of a similar ordinance in Carmel during his time as city council president in 2006, which Sharp said was a battle he didn’t think he should fight then.
Sharp’s attorney, Tim Stoesz, said the ordinance doesn’t comply with existing Indiana statutes or U.S. Supreme Court case law. Sharp said he wants the judge to remove the ordinance or at least issue a temporary injunction against its implementation. A hearing is scheduled for 3 p.m. March 29 in Hamilton County Superior Court 3.