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BRIGHTON — A Saturday confrontation between Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth and three Recall Gov. Scott Walker campaigners has raised questions about what’s allowed on public property.
The three volunteers, including a retired man and woman from Brighton, had petitions as well as Recall Walker signs on their cars near the entrance to town property northwest of the Highway 142 and Highway 75 intersection.
The area, by the town hall, is open Saturdays for weekly garbage dropoff by town residents.
The volunteers, who didn’t want to be named, said a man who brought garbage identified himself as the sheriff and told them, “You have to leave” and they were not allowed on the property because the signs gave the appearance that the municipality supported their campaign.
“He was very angry,” one of the volunteers said.
One of the volunteers at one point asked Beth “to cite a statute, and he couldn’t.”
Beth called deputies about 8:30 a.m., and they arrived a few minutes later.
The sheriff, who was out of town when he later spoke with the News, said he didn’t have the laws with him.
“But it’s been drilled into my head that a town cannot support a candidate,” he said. “You can’t make town property look like campaign headquarters.”
He said his understanding was that political signs were prohibited on all public property.
Written ordinances or state laws on having such signs on public property were not immediately available. Assistant Kenosha County District Attorney Richard Ginkowski, who often handles election-related questions, said he’d have to research the question.
The volunteers also said that when they took the signs off the car tops, Beth said to “make the signs invisible” and not let them show through the windows of their cars.
The volunteers said when one of them asked about wearing a sandwich board sign, the sheriff told them, “You’re pushing it.”
Beth told the News he ordered the campaigners to remove signs stuck in the ground and on their vehicle. He said he was less concerned about the vehicle signs and that the volunteers “probably” could have worn a sandwich board sign or a political T-shirt without violating regulations.
Without signs on the cars, letting people know what they were doing was difficult, the volunteers said.
“They’re not going to stop if they don’t know we are here,” the retired woman said.
The volunteers said Beth noted they could have 3-inch-by-3½-inch Recall Walker lanyards around their necks and buttons on their jackets.
Beth said he told the trio they could continue to collect signatures. The two retirees said they did not want to approach people to ask for signatures because that increases the possibility of confrontation.
Beth said the group told him the town clerk gave them permission to be there. Town officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
Beth said the fact that he and Walker are Republicans had “absolutely zero” to do with his ordering the signs being removed.
“I told them they could put the signs in my front driveway and front yard if they had my permission,” he said. “I can’t be much more neutral than that.”
The volunteers felt Beth was targeting them for political reasons.
“This is because it’s Sheriff Beth’s backyard, and he doesn’t like it,” one said.
Mark Balwinski, United Wisconsin volunteer coordinator for Racine and Kenosha, said he believed Beth’s actions were a violation of constitutional protections of free speech.
“This is the first I’ve heard of this level of harassment, and that’s what this basically boils down to,” he said.
Balwinksi said there have been similar stations all around Racine and Kenosha. He said in Racine, there was a requirement that they get a permit to “affix a sign to the ground or post it into the ground” in a public park, and the group received permission to do that, but has had no other issues with signs on cars or other types of signs.
“As far as I know we’ve had no other problems in Kenosha County,” he said.
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