“Nefarious” campaign piques interest in sign-law changes

Jul. 20, 2014 @ 04:08 PM

A one-man sign campaign against Sheriff Mike Andrews could trigger a move by city officials later this year to rewrite Durham’s rules for placing non-commercial messages in public street rights-of-way.

Elected officials and administrators have been swapping emails on the issue for the past couple of months, with matters coming to a head last week when City Councilman Steve Schewel signaled his support for an ordinance rewrite.

“It’s an issue of should the public right of ways be offered for unlimited use by anyone with an opinion and the money to put up an unlimited number of signs,” Schewel said in an interview.

Schewel and other officials acknowledge that the spark for the discussion is the continuing campaign against Andrews mounted by James Michael Lynch, a Geer Street resident who’s unhappy with the way the sheriff’s office investigated a theft at his home.

Lynch’s signs showed up during the spring political season, as Andrews faced former Duke University and Hillsborough Police Chief Clarence Birkhead in May’s Democratic Party primary.

Andrews won the primary, and is unopposed on the fall ballot. But Lynch’s campaign continues: His latest crop of signs, posted outside the county courthouse, brands the sheriff “nefarious” and neglectful of crime victims.

City lawyers and city/county planners have agreed the signs are legal under Durham law, even though signs “erected in connection with elections” normally are supposed to only appear from 45 days before the balloting to 15 days after.

Their reading of the law sparked questions on June 10 from City Manager Tom Bonfield, who understood correctly that whatever rule the city adopts, it can’t regulate a message’s content.

“Conceivably we could have tens of thousands of signs sprinkled throughout town on right-of-way with non-commercial expression and [city law] would allow it?” he asked, citing such potentially explosive examples as a Holocaust-denial campaign.

“I would concur that your hypotheticals could become realities under the current” sign law, City Attorney Patrick Baker responded the same day.

“The obvious solution would be to prohibit temporary signs in the public rights-of-way,” added City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin.

But the acknowledged triggering factor of the Lynch/Andrews dispute could make the issue a minefield for the city, as a month after Bonfield’s exchange with Baker and Medlin, officials fielded a demand from Andrews’ family that they do something about Lynch’s campaign.

The sheriff’s sister, Deborah Andrews, wrote Mayor Bill Bell on July 10 to complain about the media attention Lynch is getting and ask that the sign ordinance be rewritten.

She called Lynch’s ongoing campaign “an embarrassment to Durham” and is “opening a door for others, if others choose, to do likewise in attacking our elected public officials.”

The sheriff couldn’t be reached for comment, but Lynch did respond to a phone call and made it clear city leaders will have their hands full if they try to curb his efforts.

“My friend, it’s going to be an interesting fight,” he said. “It’s called the First Amendment.”

Lynch claimed he’s received encouragement along the way from a friend in the city Police Department and from a former city police chief.

As for the substance of Lynch’s complaint, property crimes are notoriously difficult to solve in ways that yield a prosecution. City police on average clear only one in five property cases, a mark Police Chief Jose Lopez has noted is above the national average.