An obscure city ordinance thwarted political speech Thursday when a city employee commanded a local Mitt Romney supporter to take down three of the four Romney signs she had planted in her yard.
“I have a right to free speech. This isn’t communist Russia. I feel violated,” said Melissa Aspeitia, who had the signs.
Aspeitia, who works as a nurse, said a city code-enforcement officer, Shane Roukema, knocked on her door shortly after noon to demand that she remove the offending signs, citing a city ordinance that states property owners are allowed only one sign per candidate per parcel of land.
Aspeitia said when she refused to take down the signs, complaining that Roukema had provided no legal documentation, Roukema said, “‘Do I need back up?’ He literally took it upon himself to take these signs down – which I paid for with donations – on my private property, without a formal statement that this was the law.”
Roukema called Durango Police to the scene.
Officer Jeff Tipton said when he arrived at Aspeitia’s yard, the signs were down, Aspeitia appeared to be very upset, and Rouheka “tried to explain his side.”
Roukema declined to comment, saying he was in the middle of watching his daughter’s volleyball game.
Acting Sgt. John Ball said it was typical for city code-enforcement officers to address such violations.
“They’re the guys that deal with bears in trash cans, couches in the alley, if you don’t shovel your snow off the sidewalk, or don’t take care of your weeds. Usually, they try to fix it with a warning.”
Ball said he was unaware of the ordinance limiting political yard signs.
“Some houses on Third Avenue have probably got 15 in the front yard,” Ball said.
City Manager Ron Le-Blanc did not return requests for comment.
“Four years ago, I had tons of Obama signs all over my yard,” said Aspeitia, “I figured they’d be vandalized, and they were, but no one complained about them. This time, I was assuming that somebody would take my Romney signs in the night – someone in high school or college – not the city.”
This election, it’s unclear whether city ordinances or city residents are more effective in muffling local political speech.
For the last three weeks, The Durango Herald has been inundated by letters from both Democrats and Republicans despairing that anonymous ne’er-do-wells had slashed or stolen their political signs.
Police spokesman Lt. Ray Shupe said Durango residents frequently report that their political yard signs are taken or vandalized during election time.
“It’s not just presidential elections, it’s every election. People will steal signs or deface them,” he said.
Aspeitia said because she owns two parcels of land, the two Romney signs currently on her property are legal.