By Paul Gable
The City of Conway administration department is in the midst of a debacle of its own creation because of the various avenues it has pursued in enforcing its city ordinance with respect to the improper placement of political signs.
It began approximately one year ago when the city decided to take a stronger stand against political signs being placed in the public rights of way in the city and modifications were made to the City of Conway Unified Development Ordinance.
When city election season came around shortly thereafter, candidate signs that were in the rights of way were collected by city employees. However, even though the new ordinance allowed the city to issue misdemeanor summonses for this offense, none were issued to any of the candidates for city council office.
When the local and state primary season began last spring, there was a change of attitude toward the steps the city would take against improper placement of signs.
The situation could not have been handled any worse by city administrators if they intentionally tried to make a debacle of this new enforcement.
During the spring primary season, city workers collected improperly placed signs and the city issued summonses to approximately 18 candidates for office with a trial date in municipal court and threat of “a fine of up to $1,100 or 30 days in jail” printed on each summons for the misdemeanor offense.
State law prohibits municipal judges from hearing criminal cases for offenses with fines of over $500, but that didn’t stop city officials from issuing the summonses.
Section15.1.1 of the Unified Development Ordinance states the city Planning Director shall notify the owner of property of any violation and order action necessary to correct it including discontinuance of any illegal use of land, among other provisions.
One candidate issued a summons, Jeanette Spurlock, questioned in an email to City Zoning Administrator Kym Wilkerson, the official who signed Spurlock’s summons, why she was not notified some her signs were improperly placed and told to remove them from public rights of way as seemed to be required under Section 15.1.1.
Wilkerson replied to Spurlock that the reference “is not relevant since the owner of the property is not in violation.”
Rights of way are public property, but political signs are the property of the candidate’s campaign. The property in violation was the sign. It would seem a less cavalier approach by Conway officials would have been to notify candidates the signs must be removed from the right of way.
Another interesting statement in Wilkerson’s email response to Spurlock states, “once a summons is issued, only the judge on the bench the date of trial may reduce or dismiss the summons.”
Two sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told GSD that Conway City Administrator Adam Emrick said there was no leeway on the issuance of summons and fines and that this ‘was his mountain and he was willing to die on that mountain.’
Spurlock hired an attorney who reached an agreement with city officials if Spurlock completed eight hours of community service or paid a $1,000 fine the city would be satisfied. Spurlock completed eight hours of community service.
Orton Bellamy, another candidate issued a summons, went to the city where he was told he could complete four hours of community service or pay a fine of $250. Bellamy undertook a project to write a manual for the Bucksport Youth Leadership Development group. Bellamy said he spent approximately 20 hours on the project.
With the completion of community service, the Spurlock and Bellamy cases were settled. According to sources familiar with the issues, Spurlock’s case was the only one dismissed by the judge in city court.
GSD has learned that three other candidates issued summonses, Helen Smith, Daryl Ricketts and Barbara Arthur met with city officials and, apparently after saying they were “sorry” for violating the ordinance, the cases were dropped with no fine or community service.
Spurlock and Bellamy both said they were unaware other summonses were dropped without any penalty and both were initially unaware that summonses were never issued last fall to city candidates in violation of the ordinance.
These varying fines, amounts of community service, dropping of cases or summonses never being issued for the same violation, appear to put the City of Conway in direct violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Add to this violation the fact that summonses were issued for appearance in city court for a violation with a potential fine of up to $1,100, in direct violation of state law, and it is obvious Conway city officials should have stopped digging the hole they are in a long time ago.
None of the above considers that Conway officials do not have any actual proof, beyond a reasonable doubt as criminal cases require, who placed the signs in the rights of way and whether the candidates to whom summonses were issued are the actual perpetrators of the criminal misdemeanor.
According to information received by GSD, four more candidates, Ken Richardson, David Ellis, John Cassidy and David Cox, are scheduled to meet with the Conway City Attorney Tuesday August 26, 2022 at 15-minute intervals in the morning.
GSD has also learned that candidates Tom Rice, Russell Fry, Johnny Gardner and Melanie Wellons, all of whom were issued a summons, have requested jury trials.
This entire issue could have been handled smoothly and without the uproar it has caused if city officials had treated local and state primary candidates in the same manner that Conway city council candidates were treated last fall.
However, it appears chest pounding bravado by the city administrator got in the way of common sense.