Don't expect to see political signs in the medians of Fairfax County this election season. Crews of nonviolent offenders are out four days a week confiscating the placards thanks to a new arrangement with the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Some people call them flowers of democracy. Others call them weeds of political pollution. Whatever one thinks of the campaign signs and placards that appear along the roads of Fairfax County, expect to see a lot fewer of them. Last month, county officials launched a new program in which nonviolent inmates at the county jail hit the streets four days a week to remove illegal signs.
With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the message is no longer in the median.
Anger and resentment has been rising over the issue of roadside political signs for years, and campaigns frequently go to war with each other to see which side can plant or steal or deface the largest number of placards. Unlike Prince William County, which had an agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation that allows the local government to collect the signs and fine violators, Fairfax was caught in a bind. Part of the Virginia code made it illegal for the county to remove the signs in Fairfax County until after an election.
Last year, Del. David Albo (R-42) introduced House Bill 34. The legislation amended Virginia law specific to Fairfax County, allowing the commissioner of highways to enter into an agreement with the Board of Supervisors. Instead of waiting for the Virginia Department of Transportation to enforce the law against signs in the medians, the new law allows Fairfax County to enter into an agreement similar to the one that already exists in Prince William allowing the local government to collect the signs and issue a $100 fine for each violation.
“Once you do it a couple of times, then nobody does it anymore,” said Albo. “Politicians are running to write laws, and they don’t want to break them.”
Also says the 2011 campaign was the last straw. As the election for state Senate approached, the roadsides of Fairfax County were littered with thousands of signs for every candidate under the sun. Because two different attorneys general issued conflicting opinions about whether or not political signs constituted free speech, Albo said, candidates could argue the practice was legal. Albo’s bill this year ended that ambiguity, clarifying the law even as it gave new authority to Fairfax County.
“This is something that has bothered people for a number of years,” said Springfield Supervisor Pat Herrity. “The county has tried before to address it, but we’ve clearly got it addressed this time.”
Back in February, the supervisors approved a contract with VDOT. Now, as a result of Albo's legislation and the supervisors’ agreement, Fairfax County has a contract to enforce VDOT's rules. The new program launched on July 1, and the clean-up crew of inmates has been out every Tuesday to Friday since that time. County leaders say the weekends are still fair game.
"Signs will be removed from selected highways, not all neighborhood streets," said Troy Manos, communications director for Bulova. "Basically that means if you are having a garage sale and you want to put a sign at the end of a small residential street, that would be OK."