After enduring blistering criticism over the Vilas County Highway Department's decision to remove political signs from highway rights of way prior to the June 5 state recall election, the county's Highway Committee will attempt to clarify the issue by putting a new policy in writing.
The controversy began when highway department employees removed dozens of political and other signs from highway rights of way during the height of the recall campaign. Owners could reclaim the signs at the department office in Eagle River.
Highway Commissioner Jarred Maney said the Wisconsin Department of Transportation instructed him twice to to remove signs from rights of way.
Maney told the committee that he didn't take action until the second communication. He hoped early on that the issue would fade in importance.
"We have an agreement with the state for routine maintenance along state highways," Maney said. "It would be a breach of contract for us not to do what they request us to do. All the signs were illegally placed, and it is not fair to the people who follow the rules."
Maney noted that many people don't realize that rights of way often contain underground electrical and natural gas lines and other utilities that could be damaged by signs.
A little more enthusiastic?
Some people claimed as the controversy grew that, because highway department workers belong to a public-employee union, they were more enthusiastic about removing political signs supporting Gov. Scott Walker.
"I don't know who said we had to take down political and real estate signs," said committee Chairman Charles Rayala. "There seems to be a little discrimination in the way they went about that."
Rayala said he talked to officials from other counties about how they handled the issue.
"They told me that as long as it does not obstruct part of the road or the intersection or is past the ditch lines, they would not remove them," Rayala said. "Laws are for guidance and this really added fuel to the fire and made all public employees look like SOBs."
Committee member and supervisor Chris Mayer disagreed.
"The highway commissioner is following the directives from the state," Mayer said. "It boils down to procedure being discussed between the committee and the commissioner."
Mayer said the committee should decide on a procedure that will be in effect year-round and understood by everyone.
"I think we would try to mirror whatever the state policy is, of course, with some modifications," Mayer said. "It won't just be enforced at election time. It will be enforced 365 days a year. This whole thing has gotten a little distorted."
Right of way locations
Committee member and supervisor Kathleen Rushlow described a situation in which it was clear a DOT employee was misinformed and thus overreacted.
Rushlow said a 4- by 8-foot sign had been placed on local private property after a consultation with DOT officials.
"One day, someone from the DOT came, took a saw and cut the sign down," Rushlow said. "The person said something like, 'We're sick of these people having signs on the right of way' and left it there laying on the ground."
Later, a DOT official apologized, agreeing the sign was legal.
"They then put the sign back up," Rushlow said.
Other committee members noted that legal rights of way vary greatly at many locations, so it is difficult to determine at times if a sign is in a legal location.
No employee conduct issues
County Board Chairman Steve Favorite, who sat in on part of Wednesday's meeting, said a firm county policy would help to avoid future disputes.
"I handed this issue over to our human resources director (Janna Kahl)," Favorite said. "She said she talked to the highway department employees about the matter and felt there was no conduct issues that needed to be dealt with."
Favorite acknowledged, however, that the county's policy on the storage of confiscated signs "is a little too loose."
"We need to tighten that up a bit, because there are state rules that say the county is responsible for the storage of those signs for 30 days," he said.
Reclaiming signs after they have been removed is a problem for some owners. The committee learned that some signs are taken down by state DOT workers, so the county is not in possession of them. The DOT does not inform county officials when a sign is removed. In addition, some signs are stolen by vandals.
Specific pick-up time
The committee agreed it will establish a time when signs can be reclaimed and a storage location.
County attorney Martha Milanowski said that she and Maney would draft an ordinance and policy.
A suggestion that a fee be paid when a sign is reclaimed appeared to have little support.
And Mayer counseled patience on the part of the county.
"I think we need to relax a little while on the sign removal until we have a new set procedure," he said. "That will let things cool off a bit."
The committee will discuss a new policy at its next meeting.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at email@example.com.