After the Douglas Neighbor published an article about the arrest of James Bell this past Wednesday, the Sentinel felt they also had to chime in, so they published the following article today:

Campaign sign controvery leads to arrest
By Winston Jones
Staff Writer

The Dogwood Strip in downtown Lithia Springs is a place of civic pride. It has an old clock, flowering trees and a welcome sign for visitors coming into town on Bankhead Highway (U.S. 78).

In recent weeks, it has also become a gathering place for numerous local election campaign signs, and has spurred controversy over where signs can and cannot be placed.

James Bell, 48, a Lithia Springs resident and guardian of the strip, has found himself in trouble with the law over his zeal to keep the area clean.

Bell has headed up an informal cleanup group known as Lithia Springs Clean and Beautiful for several years.

“The Dogwood Strip is an area we want to keep free of any signs and trash,” Bell said.

About three weeks ago, Bell removed some of the campaign signs and said he notified the candidates of his action. The candidates were Todd Cowan, Rhonda Payne and Beau McClain. Bell said he had no intention of stealing the signs and planned to return them to their owners at the next Republican Party meeting. He removed them, he said, because they were illegally on state right-of-way.

“I asked them not to put them there and they responded by doubling up on the number,” Bell said.

However, he soon found himself being arrested by county deputies.

Bell was charged with three counts of misdemeanor theft by taking and released on $1,000 bond on each count. A court date hasn’t been set, Bell said.

“Mr. Bell took it upon himself to decide that campaign signs don’t belong there,” said Douglas County Chief Deputy Stan Copeland. “He has no legal authority to remove them.”

Copeland said Bell had been warned about removing signs and should have gone to the Board of Commissioners if he felt the signs were illegally posted. Copeland said the county will make cases against anyone taking down or destroying campaign signs.

“Anyone we catch stealing or destroying signs will be arrested,” he said.

Bell said he intends to fight the theft charges.

Candidate Beau McClain said Friday that he’d had no contact with Bell over the signs. McClain said that he doesn’t want his signs anywhere that’s not legal, but he said his supporters sometimes aren’t aware of all the sign ordinances.

“We should be patient and kind with each other in the political season and give all the candidates an opportunity to be seen and heard,” McClain said. “If signs end up in places where they shouldn’t be, I hope we have the opportunity to move them where they need to be.”

County sign regulations treat campaign signs as “temporary event signs” and allow them to be placed along county right-of-way if they are at least six feet from the curb or edge of the pavement. The regulations also say the signs must not exceed 3 square feet in surface area or more than 30 inches in height.

However, Bankhead Highway right-of-way is state property and Georgia Code, O.C.G.A. 32-6-51 prohibits any signs on state right-of-way.

David Spear, press secretary of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), said political signs are not allowed on state right-of-way, which can vary between 7 and 100 feet in width along the roadway, depending on the nature of the road. Right of way is measured from the edge of the road, he said.

“We’ve encouraged campaigns not to put them (signs) in our right of way,” Spear said Friday. “A lot of times people call and report them (signs) and our crews pick them up. Also, as the crews work through an area, they pick them up and they get disposed in the landfill. We encourage people not to do it themselves but to call us.”

However, Spear said if a person is a member of a state-recognized beautification group sponsor of a strip of highway, he/she is authorized to remove any litter, including signs. He said Bell was not a member of such a group.

“We consider them (signs) litter and don’t like them there,” Spear said. “Our primary concern is they’re a safety hazard since they can distract motorists.”