Sultan resident Al Wirta is no fan of Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick, nor does he support her idea of running for the office of Snohomish County Executive. And he doesn’t try to keep his feelings a secret.
So when Eslick’s campaign installed a large-sized temporary political campaign sign at the west entrance of the city in early June, Wirta decided to exercise his right to free speech. He designed an oppositional campaign sign which stated “Eslick = Tax & Spend” and went out one morning at around 4 a.m. and installed it right underneath Eslick’s sign.
The next thing he knew, his sign had vanished.
“I kind of suspected maybe a local citizen just didn’t like it, so I thought ‘Ok, I’ll just make another sign,’” said the long-time Sultan business-owner.
Once his first sign went missing, Wirta decided to get creative and employ some non-traditional tactics to serve as a deterrent should anybody seek to remove his sign a second time. Again, at around 4 a.m., he installed another sign with the same message as the first. He also smeared all four sides of the sign post with honey, and coated the bottom portion of the sign with a greasy, difficult to remove substance known as anti-seize lubricant.
He carefully applied it to the back of the sign so an individual observing the sign from the front wouldn’t notice the substance. Wirta explained that while anti-seize isn’t toxic to humans, the tenacious substance is very difficult to remove from skin and clothing.
“I mean, it really makes a mess on your hands,” said Wirta.
He also decided to do some investigating, and when he installed his second sign he hid his camouflaged-trail camera back in the brush and set it up to take photos in the event that anything should trigger its motion detector.
Again, his sign went missing.
And due to a lag in the camera’s activation time, he was unable to capture of image of whoever swiped his second sign. The sign was removed within just a few hours of his early morning installation.
Wirta attempted to place a sign next to U.S. 2 near the Sultan Basin Road next. His first sign was a wooden sign slightly larger than his previous signs, which he bolted to the chain-link fence at the corner of U.S. 2 and Sultan Basin Road. He again positioned his camera; this time set to obtain video footage, but once again was thwarted by technical difficulties.
And once again, his sign was removed.
Wirta decided to get more strategic. He recalled a method of sign placement referred to as Burma-Shave, in which several roadside signs are placed in a sequential order. He knew that if he positioned his equipment correctly, and placed several signs in the same general vicinity, the camera would have adequate time to become activated and capture the image of whoever was removing the signs.
He created a series of signs which stated; “Want county taxes to go up like your city utility bills? Vote Eslick.” He broke the message up so that it appeared spread out over four separate signs. The last sign in the sequence stated, simply, “Vote Eslick.”
Finally, on Wednesday, June 25, Wirta installed his four signs just before 4:30 a.m., right alongside U.S. 2 on the north side of the highway, directly west of the Sultan Basin Road. And by shortly after noon that same day, they were gone. All except the fourth sign of the series which stated “Vote Eslick.” But this time, Wirta had managed to collect video footage of the perpetrator. Once he retrieved his camera and began reviewing the digital images, Wirta was quite surprised to discover who took his signs.
It was Sultan City Administrator Ken Walker.
“This fella pulled three signs and left the ‘Vote Eslick’ sign,” said Wirta.
Wirta replaced his signs the very next day, on June 26, and repositioned his camera. The result was additional footage of his signs, all four of them this time, being removed by Walker. He also obtained additional video on July 2 of the exact same sequence of events.
City Administrator Walker openly acknowledged that he did indeed pull Wirta’s signs and firmly stated that the city has absolutely nothing to hide. They were simply following the law.
The city had recently been put on notice by the Washington State Department of Transportation, who informed city officials that per state law, all temporary political campaign signs placed in DOT right-of-way are considered a public nuisance and are illegal.
Since much of Sultan is located near U.S. 2, the DOT right-of-way is extremely prevalent throughout the city.
The location of the political signage in the city came under fire due to a citizen’s complaint. During the July 10 Sultan City Council meeting, it was acknowledged that the complaint was made by ex-Sultan Councilmember Kay George. George stated that she did not make the complaint because signs were placed in the right-of-way that offended her, but complained due to the fact that Wirta’s oppositional signage had started going missing.
As a result of the complaint, the DOT stated that all political campaign signage in the right-of-way needed to be removed.
Walker stated that the city was simply following DOT regulations which specify that either the city or local law enforcement is responsible for enforcing the DOT sign policy and as such, either the city or local law enforcement is responsible for abating the illegal signs.
Walker explained that first, the city notified each of the different political campaigns who had signage in the right-of-way, letting them know that they needed to come and remove their signs as soon as possible. The city gave each campaign a specific amount of time in which to have the signs picked up.
“There were political campaign signs from five different campaigns, and then there were some additional signs that were not from a campaign,” said Walker. “They were negative attack ads against one of the candidates.”
The campaigns contacted included the campaigns for Pedro Celis, Carolyn Eslick, Jim Upton, Elizabeth Scott and John Lovick.
Walker explained that while they could easily identify who was responsible for the majority of the signs, the attack signs were a different story.
“We had no way of knowing who those signs belonged to, so we simply started removing them,” said Walker.
Walker directed city staff to remove the illegal signs whenever possible, but sometimes had to find alternative methods since the public works department was down three people at the time.
“I personally went out and removed some of them, because we were so short-staffed,” said Walker.
Walker explained that Wirta’s signs were not the only ones removed by the city. Some political campaign signs were left after the removal deadline set by the city, and so those signs were abated by city staff as well.
“What the city removed was one Lovick, one Scott and about three or four Upton. And then we removed about 12 signs that were anti-Eslick,” said Walker. “But I didn’t know who put them out. There was nothing on them that indicated who put the signs out.”
Concerning to Wirta is the fact that his signs began disappearing before George’s complaint to the DOT. While Wirta did not document the exact dates that he installed his original two “Eslick = Tax & Spend” signs, the signs were noticed and acknowledged by a Sultan resident who recalled seeing one on June 9. He noticed the sign again on the morning of June 10.
The resident also recalled that by the evening of June 10, the sign was gone.
George’s complaint to the DOT was not made until June 16. If city staff had been directed to remove his signs after the June 16 complaint, Wirta would like to know who removed the signs that went missing before the June 16 complaint.
Additionally, Wirta drove around after his signs were taken on July 2 to observe if anybody else’s signs were being removed. He obtained video footage of many other campaign signs in the city which had, at that point, been left intact.
“That tells me we’ve got corruption within the city and to them it’s just no big deal,” said Wirta.
Recently, signs have been a major point of contention in Sultan, particularly during the last election. And when it comes to DOT policy, the city’s hands are tied as DOT regulations in regards to right-of-way issues takes precedent over the city’s own sign code.
Walker explained that there is no restriction on political campaign signs in city right-of-way, and that there is another four-sign sequence of signs reflecting Wirta’s opposition to the Eslick campaign posted up along the Sultan Basin Road. He stated that since those signs are 600 feet from the highway, they are not against DOT or city policy.
“They have not been touched because they are completely legal,” said Walker. “The only signs that we removed were signs that were illegally placed in WashDOT right-of-way.”
But Wirta is not satisfied with that explanation, and has filed an official complaint with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission as well as a report with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department.
“The truth is going to win out here,” said Wirta.