Mark Opitz sees them all the time: political signs erected on public property. Usually, no action is taken ' unless the signs pose a hazard or someone complains.
'We do complaint-driven enforcement,' says Opitz, assistant planner for the city of Middleton. 'We don't have the resources to police the city every day looking for violators, and I don't think people would want that.'
But last week, the city of Middleton did get involved, after complaints were received about a large political sign hung from a tree at the intersection of Thorstrand Road and Overlook Pass. The sign, relates Opitz, was 'at least 10 feet' above the ground and visible to traffic on University Avenue.
Mark Walther, the city's code compliance officer, was sent to the scene and removed the sign, a four-by-four-foot piece of plywood containing placards for four Republican candidates: Mark Green, J.B. Van Hollen, Dave Magnum and Mike Hanson. Walther took no further action because he could not prove who erected the sign ' although, he says, 'I suspect we all know who the sign was put up by.'
In October 2004, a slightly larger sign touting GOP candidates was hung from another tree at the same location. Barbed wire was strung around the tree base, presumably to injure anyone who might try removal. And the sign was illuminated by floodlights, with an extension cord trailing back to the Madison residence of Carol McNeill Skorupan, chair of the Dane County Republican Party.
According to a city of Middleton memo produced at the time, Opitz and Middleton Police Chief Brad Keil visited Skorupan, who claimed that 'the sign, lights and barbed wire were all on her private property' ' even though they were many feet away and not even in the same city. The visitors provided Skorupan with an aerial photograph with superimposed boundary lines. She agreed to remove the display.
This year's illegal sign did not include a telltale extension cord leading back to Skorupan's opulent residence (with a 2006 assessed value of $577,100 on a 33,844-square-foot lot). But yard signs for the same four GOP candidates have lined the roadway in front of her house, also likely intruding into the right-of-way.
'She has no respect for public property,' says Steve Jensen, who lives down the street. 'She has no respect for local laws.' Jensen, who complained about the sign two years ago, and again this year, insists he would have done the same if they were for Democrats. 'I'm an independent,' he says.
Municipalities have limited power to regulate political signs, such as requiring that they be less than 11 square feet. (City of Madison officials say most complaints they get are over signs being too big or in the public right-of-way.) And Opitz stresses that Middleton 'does not enforce based on the content of the message.' But he admits complaint-driven enforcement can be used by those who object more to content than encroachment.
Skorupan did not respond to requests for comment. That may be wise, especially if she did have something to do with this year's display. Compliance czar Walther says that if 'some person did come forward and say those were my signs and I'm very upset you took them,' he would issue a citation.