Portland median strip restriction won’t prevent election-season campaign signs

This week, the Portland City Council on its second try passed an ordinance change that prohibits anyone from standing — or doing anything other than walking through — the median strips in the city. The ordinance language has widely been considered a prohibition on panhandling from the median strips, which has taken off in recent years, but during Monday night’s council meeting, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck made it a point to note that panhandlers alone wouldn’t be affected by the change.

Candidates for public office similarly wouldn’t be able to stand in those spots with campaign signs, nor would folks with “Two-for-one pizza” deal advertisements.

Kelly Noble panhandles in the median strip on the corner of St. John Street and Park Avenue in Portland in this July 3, 2012, file photo. Noble said at the time a proposed city ordinance restricting pedestrians in the median won’t stop any panhandlers she knows. “I know people who’ve been panhandling for 20 years,” she said. (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

The fact that the ordinance blocks everyone equally — regardless of the content of his or her sign — that city attorneys say makes it defensible against a legal challenge on constitutional grounds. (If the city were to prohibit just displaying signs asking for money from motorists, for instance, it would be seen as an infringement upon the panhandlers’ First Amendment right to free expression — attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine still may challenge the ordinance on that front, but that’s the argument the city is using.)

Despite the stated inclusion of politicians and pizza salesmen as people who could be affected by the ordinance change, the move was largely seen as targeting the aforementioned panhandlers. Many business leaders don’t think the median-strip panhandlers present a welcoming sight for visitors to the city, and Portland police — among other supporters of the ordinance — say allowing people to stand so close to moving traffic is a real safety risk that may one day result in tragedy.

But while the panhandlers are the group most affected, the ordinance change has gotten some to question whether politicians might actually also be impacted as the police chief said.

In a way, they are. If you want to run for office in Portland, you will no longer be able to stand in a median strip with a sign saying so — although I don’t recall the last time I saw somebody do that (yesterday, BDN photographer Troy R. Bennett and I did see somebody in a median strip with a political sign denouncing agricultural giant Monsanto).

The more common sight during campaign season, however, might be a line of knee-high temporary election signs in those same medians. Are those now banished, too, as an unintentional byproduct of this ordinance?

While the ordinance change says nothing specifically about those signs (as long as they’re not being held by a person loitering there), it does prevent people from doing anything other than passing from one side of the street to the other. Stopping to install a campaign sign at first blush appears to be breaking the new rules.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg clarified for me today, though, that the newly tweaked ordinance “does not apply” to the installment of political signs on the public median spaces, the activity surrounding which is regulated in part by the state.

“[S]omeone walking through and placing a sign (legally) would still be able to do so” under the revised ordinance, she wrote in response to an email query I’d sent her.

So there you go. Those election-season campaign signs will be back soon enough, and the recent ordinance change won’t stop them.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.