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Opinion: Freedom impaired, stop it, move on

By Mike Williscraft

Despite it being August and most residents paying attention to other things right now, I was deluged by comments regarding last week’s story regarding Grimsby Council’s decision to maintain limitations on portable lawn signs.

As you would know by now, good reader, this all started when some on council got their cookies frosted after a resident called into question his ward representation.

Multiple visits from the bylaw department later, the Main Street East resident was told to remove his lawn sign or face penalty.

There are so many ins and outs to this ridiculous charade, the purpose of this column will focus on the considered legal opinion of Grimsby legal counsel. At the Aug. 23 Committee of the Whole meeting, John Mascarin provided said opinion, stating as follows (with some minor edits for style and length – but feel free to check the recorded version through – with some interjected commentary.

“We’re not here looking to limit sign expression everywhere in the municipality. We’re basically saying you can’t have portable signs in residential and rural zones.”

Ok, so what’s left?

That leaves commercial and industrial properties as fair game for portable signs.

If that is the case, why did bylaw make an appearance at the rural home of a Main Street retail building owner asking him to remove a sign suggesting action be taken against the Town CAO? That was in a window, not outside at all, and not “in a residential and rural zones”.

I guess that was just part of the bylaw officer’s decision-making ability to decide what can and cannot be posted around town. Good thing he’s an expert.

“No doubt, no doubt whatsoever a limit on the right to freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression, of course, is not unlimited and there’s Section 1 of the Charter that’s reasonable limit in a free and democratic society. The Oakes test – under which a limit on a Charter right must be “reasonable” and “demonstrably justified.”

Generally speaking, most elected officials fight for the rights of their constituents. Those who get elected and seek to limit the rights of voters are few and far between, but Grimsby’s got them, several of them.

When an elected official has a lawyer – an expert, right Coun. Vaine – say, “No doubt, no doubt whatsoever a limit on the right to freedom of expression”, it should be game over. Move on.

And it needs to be noted, this was not a G5 action. Coun. John Dunstall was absent as was Coun. Reg Freake. The key vote was Coun. Dave Kadwell who voted against the motion to accept the sign bylaw report which recommended the measure be left as altered, meaning no lawn signs without permits or exceptions. Whether Kadwell’s resolve on that issue continues remains to be seen, but for now, it appears council still has an opportunity to correct itself.

The next part was not a complete sentence and he kind of drifted off, but I believe what Mascarin was attempting to say was there was a limitation in one area, but there were other possibilities for residents to express themselves.

“The objective of the bylaw and the rational connection between the ability to still have some signage in other venues, other means, other forms of expression. I also think the bylaw passed the minimal impairment test.”

So clearly, most properties in any town are residential. How many residents and also own a commercial or industrial property where they could post a sign?

What “other means” could a homeowner use to publicly display displeasure with their elected official? Suggestions appreciated.

“Mr. Boese has set out well some of the concerns about aesthetics, pollution additional costs with having to pick up discarded signs or signs that are past the time limit and additional enforcement measures.”

What a reach!

Mascarin has given several “opinions” at Grimsby council but none were as weakly supported as this one. I would bet any financial impact from – let’s call it – sign maintenance by the Town’s bylaw team would be a couple of hundred bucks over the last 10 years, if that. Just a brutal take.

So you have Grimsby administration and its counsel looking for ways to limit the basic rights of residents to note that one councillor or another or the Town’s CAO should be turfed. That’s the long and short of it.

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