Breckenridge Texan

Campaign signs on courthouse lawn stir up controversy

Campaign signs on courthouse lawn stir up controversy
February 20
09:59 2020

Update: As of Sunday, Feb. 23, all of the campaign signs on the courthouse lawns in Stephens and Shackelford counties had been removed.

Original story:

As early voting continues this week, the county judges of Stephens and Shackelford counties want to make sure citizens know that they and the counties they serve do not endorse candidates, despite the campaign signs that were placed on the courthouse lawns earlier this week.

The candidates and/or their campaign workers placed the signs in front of the courthouses. No one working for the counties was involved in the placement.

In Stephens County, signs for Jon Francis were placed on the northeast and southeast corners of the courthouse lawn, and signs for Glenn Rogers were placed there later. Both are candidates in the Republican Primary for the Texas House of Representatives District 60 position being vacated by Mike Lang, who chose not to run for reelection. Locally, there were no signs at the courthouse from the other two candidates in the race, Christopher Perricone and Kellye SoRelle. There are no Democratic Party candidates for the position at this time.

By 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, the Rogers signs and several of the Francis signs had been removed from the Stephens County Courthouse lawn. A total of six Francis signs remained.

Legally, campaign signs cannot be less than 100 feet from a polling location. Although the posting of the signs is legal, current and retired judges said Wednesday afternoon that previous political candidates have always respected the neutrality of the courthouse grounds.

Stephens County Judge Michael Roach said he was approached on Tuesday morning, Feb. 18, by the  Francis campaign asking if the county had any kind of local rule against placing signs on county property or the courthouse lawn.

Roach said he was not aware of any rule and did some research, including contacting former County Judge Gary Fuller and former County Clerk Helen Haddock. He also checked with the Secretary of State’s office, and they said there was no state law prohibiting it.

Roach said he talked to Francis on the phone and told him that historically the signs had not been put on the courthouse lawn and that the courthouse was considered a neutral area by candidates in the past. He said Francis told him they were not breaking any rules so they were going to put them on the lawn.

“We understand there is a first amendment right, but there’s also a long, long history of precedent where people were not cluttering up the courthouse lawn,” Roach said. “We just wish they would have honored our wishes. My grandmother said, ‘Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean that you should.’  I think that’s the big thing – just because you can.”

Roach said he had received several phone calls over the past couple of days about the signs. He said people were asking why the signs were there and were registering their complaints. He became concerned that people thought the county was endorsing a certain candidate.

“That’s the calls I was getting,” Roach said. “It was that very thing: Why is Stephens County endorsing a particular candidate? Or, ‘Why did y’all allow them to do that?’ Like we had blessed it or something, and that’s not just some ‘what if,’ that’s exactly what was happening.”

Shackelford County Judge Bob Skelton said the Francis campaign also put signs out on their courthouse lawn, which had not been done by candidates in the past either.

”There are some people in the community upset about it, and they have called about it,” he said. “I would refer them to the Jon Francis campaign, because we did not place the signs there and do not endorse Jon Francis or any candidate.”

Skelton said there are at least two big signs and a dozen or so small signs that were placed there by the Francis campaign.

He said the signs were outside of 100-foot electioneering line, which is allowed, and any candidate can legally put their signs there. “No, campaigns have not done that in the past,” Skelton said. “This time, Jon Francis has done that.”

Former Stephens County Judge Gary Fuller said it’s been at least eight years since he can remember anybody trying to put signs on the courthouse lawn.  “At that time, they couldn’t put them on public property,” he said. “That’s when they started putting them across the street on private property on the old oil well that Tommy Wimberley had across the street.  Back then, that wasn’t an issue (putting signs on the courthouse lawn); you just couldn’t do that.”

Fuller said he didn’t understand why any candidate would want to put their signs at the courthouse.  “I don’t know why that guy would do it, it will cost him more votes than he will get,” Fuller said. “People are (mad).”

Campaign Comments

When the Breckenridge Texan called Francis to discuss his campaign’s decision to place the signs on the courthouse lawn, Francis said he could not comment because his campaign has a policy that all media inquiries have to be made to his campaign manager, Destin Sensky.

When Sensky was asked whether the campaign staff had talked to any Stephens County officials before putting the signs on the courthouse lawn, he said it was not necessary to discuss where they put their campaigns signs prior to putting them up. He said they were well within their rights to put the signs where they put them.

Sensky said putting the campaigns signs on public property was in no way an endorsement of their candidate by the county and nobody contested that what they were doing as wrong or illegal.

In an email statement sent by Sensky on Wednesday night, he said, “We are happy to get our message to voters across the District. State law clearly gives all candidates the opportunity to put their signs up at polling locations. No complaints have been made in any other counties. We’re taking every voter seriously and are happy to get our conservative message to them directly at the voting locations.”

After Francis put out his signs on the courthouse lawn, local volunteers for candidate Glenn Rogers, who is running against Francis, put up two signs on the courthouse lawn to counter the Francis signs, according to Rogers’ campaign manager Jeff Hinkson. Rogers was at a public function and could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

“The signs that were put up in Stephens and Shackelford, were put up by locals in response to all the Francis signs being put up,” Hinkson said. “This was not something we wanted to do, or approve of. The campaign didn’t request any signs be put up or anything of that sort. It was simply locals took it upon themselves.

“Personally, it’s disrespectful to litter a courthouse lawn with signs,” he said. “It’s a matter of respect not legality.”

Removing the signs

On Wednesday evening, Stephens County Judge Roach said he received a call from Sensky who told him their campaign would be removing their signs from the courthouse lawn first thing Thursday morning.  He said he also wanted it to be noted that no one had to ask them to come take the signs, but that they were doing it voluntarily.

According to Roach, Sensky said he didn’t realize it was such an issue, and that he got a call from the Breckenridge Texan and that kind of explained the situation on the ground. He said he wanted people to talk about the issues and the campaign never intended to break a years’ long honor code by putting the signs on the courthouse lawn. Roach said that Sensky told him that they’re from the Metroplex and they do that kind of thing there all the time.

However, when the Breckenridge Texan sent a text message to Sensky to try and confirm that the Francis campaign was in fact planning to voluntarily remove the signs on Thursday morning, his reply was, “No further comment from us on this story. Ready to talk issues again. Thank You!”

As of 9:30 a.m. Thursday, only some of the Francis signs had been removed.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hinkson said that if the Francis campaign removed their signs from the courthouse lawns, the Rogers campaign would do the same.

Lisa Echols, a local volunteer for Rogers’ campaign in Stephens County, agreed with Hinkson. “We’ll be happy to pull them,” she said. “We only had them up there because (Francis’) were all over everywhere. (Local campaign volunteers) put out some, so Jon Francis’ wouldn’t be the only ones.”

By Thursday morning, the Rogers signs had been removed from the courthouse lawn in Stephens County.

Also on Thursday morning, the “Rogers for Texas” Facebook page posted a statement calling on the Francis campaign to take down the signs, citing reports of voter intimidation and hundreds of complaints made to cities, counties, chambers, judges and sheriff’s offices across District 60.

“Littering polling places with campaign signs shows great disrespect to our District 60 communities, its citizens, our historic courthouse squares, and the sacred right we have as Texans to vote without fear of intimidation,” the Rogers’ campaign post stated.

County policy moving forward

Roach said they are working with County Attorney Gary Trammel trying to try and formulate a local policy on signs on the courthouse lawn. The item is on the agenda for discussion at Monday’s  County Commissioners meeting.

“That was kind of shock and a surprise that they did that (put out campaign signs),” Trammel said. “I think commissioners have indicated they want me to create an ordinance or resolution to prevent all signs from being placed in the yard of the courthouse.”

He said there are both safety and aesthetic concerns in creating a policy. “You have a sprinkler systems, gas lines, water lines, and you have people hammering stakes into the ground.  Aesthetics come into play; that is bona fide concern. That’s something they’re looking at.”

Roach said they are trying to formulate a local policy that will allow some groups like the Child Abuse Awareness campaign each year and the veterans fundraiser to continue using their signs. He said they want to try to be accommodating but nothing political. “Hopefully we can exclude one and not the other,” he said.

Skelton said Shackelford County will also probably take a look at the possibility of implementing some kind of local regulation in the future, as well.

“We have not prohibited that in the past,” Skelton said. “But given what has happened, there’s a call in the community to prohibit it. The commissioners court is going to look at a solution but ensure it doesn’t have unexpected consequences.  Once you prohibit anything, then you run up against things you would like to do.”

Trammel said he’s been around a lot county courthouses and has never seen signs on the lawns. “The deal is,” he said. “The courthouse is supposed to be equal footing for everybody. And when you throw all those signs up, it looks like the county is supporting one candidate over another. It’s the sanctity of the courthouse – it’s supposed to be fair and balanced to all the people.”

 

Story by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: Campaign signs for two candidates for the Texas House Representatives’ District 60 position were placed on the Stephens County Courthouse lawn earlier this week. By Thursday morning, the Rogers signs and some of the Francis signs had been removed. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

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