Yes, campaign signs on highway overpasses violate Utah law

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Campaign signs are plastered on a pedestrian crossing over Bangerter Highway at 4100 South, and on roadside fences beneath it on Saturday, June 20, 2020.

As next week’s primary election approaches, most highway overpasses — and many roadway fences — are plastered with campaign signs.

That’s against the law.

Perhaps symbolic of how the law is ignored is that vandals spray-painted over state placards warning about that ban on a pedestrian bridge over Bangerter Highway at 4100 South. Somewhat comically, campaign signs hang all around the vandalized warning signs.

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vandals painted over a state sign warning about a ban on hanging signs from a pedestrian overpass, while numerous campaign signs hang nearby on a bridge over Bangerter Highway at 4100 South on June 20, 2020.

The state’s biggest campaigns — all four GOP gubernatorial candidates and the two GOP attorney general candidates — have signs that are in violation statewide. Campaigns usually say they are innocent and blame problems on overzealous volunteers or supporters.

“State and federal law prohibits signs in the state’s right of way,” said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason. “This includes all state highways, medians, road shoulders, off-ramps, overpasses and similar areas.”

Utah Code 72-7-503 outlaws placing advertising in public areas along state highways without permission from UDOT (which Gleason says the agency never gives to campaigns) or along county roads without permission from the county. Violation is a class B misdemeanor.

Utah Code 72-5-708 allows fines between $500 and $1,500 a day depending on how long roadway advertising remains after notice is given ordering removal. Utah Administrative Code R933-2 (and state law) allows UDOT to remove offending signs and charge owners the cost of doing so.

But Gleason concedes that few signs are ever removed and probably no campaign or candidate has ever been fined.

“It’s not always the best use of our time to remove the signs. Many times, other signs will appear in their place as soon as the very next day,” he said. “We generally will let it run its course and the campaigns will remove the signs after the election is finished.”

(Lee Davidson| The Salt Lake Tribune) A campaign sign on a pedestrian bridge over 4700 South at 3200 West on June 20, 2020.

Gleason said crews will remove signs that create safety hazards, such as blocking key line of sight for drivers. UDOT will hold those for campaigns that wish to retrieve them. “This happens every election year,” he notes about the signs.

Campaigns contacted about signs in violation generally say they know about the state law banning that, have asked supporters not to post them in such areas, and say they will remove them if they are notified or receive complaints about problems.

The two Republican candidates for attorney general say having campaign signs that violate the law is something they try to avoid — since attorney general is the state’s top law enforcement position — but say it’s a constant battle with overzealous supporters.

“It’s just supporters out there who put up the signs,” said Alan Crooks, campaign manager for incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes. “We have paid people who actually go take them down.”

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Campaign signs, including some for Attorney General Sean Reyes, hang on an overpass above I-215 on June 20, 2020.

Crooks said it’s not unusual for a supporter to call and brag about putting up a sign on an overpass, despite instructions not to do that. “We’re like, ‘OK, now we’re going to send somebody to take that one down.”

He said that once when a worker removed such a sign, the campaign received a phone call from a supporter who originally placed it. “He said, ‘Man, your opponent is taking down your signs so I went and put one back up.”

Crooks added, “It actually costs us because we have to pay someone to go take down signs, which is ridiculous for a campaign, but that’s part of our job.”

Reyes’ opponent in the primary, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, says sign placement by supporters is also a problem for his campaign even though “we tell every one of them to make sure you have permission and don’t put them in rights of way.” He said his campaign also removes them when it receives complaints about signs in improper locations.

“These signs from all campaigns kind of mushroom,” Leavitt said. “It becomes difficult to manage, obviously, as you see as you go past every overpass.”

Heather Barney, spokeswoman for the gubernatorial campaign of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, also said its signs on overpasses are the result of volunteers, even though they have been instructed not to hang them there. She said the campaign will remove problematic signs.

Lisa Roskelley, spokeswoman for the gubernatorial campaign of former Gov. Jon Huntsman, emailed a statement that said the campaign “made efforts to call cities and counties, understand their different sign ordinances and convey that information to our volunteers putting out signs.”

The campaigns for gubernatorial candidates Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright did not respond to inquiries.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, the chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.